Mubarak Removed From Egyptian Prison

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CAIRO -- Egypt's new rulers on Thursday moved former President Hosni Mubarak from a prison cell to house arrest at a military hospital, ending more than two years of incarceration but stopping short of granting him full freedom.

His release stoked the anger of the thousands of Islamists and others still protesting in the streets around the country nightly to denounce the military's ouster and detention last month of Mr. Mubarak's successor, Mohamed Morsi. But among other groups reaction was muted.

The left-leaning April 6 Group, which spearheaded the 2011 uprising against Mr. Mubarak, called off a planned protest against Mr. Mubarak's release for fear that Mr. Morsi's Islamist supporters might exploit it for their own cause, or that security forces might crush it in their drive to suppress the Islamists. It was canceled "to avoid the shedding of more Egyptian blood," the group said in a statement.

An Egyptian court granted a lawyer's petition for Mr. Mubarak's release on Wednesday night, but the decision to let him go was essentially political. The new authorities appointed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi declined to follow the Morsi government's practice of raising new charges to keep Mr. Mubarak behind bars. Instead, the new officials used the expanded police powers that they have granted themselves to keep Mr. Mubarak under house arrest without charges, assuring that he does not begin speaking out publicly or stirring up trouble.

Arriving from prison in a medical helicopter at around 4 p.m., Mr. Mubarak reclined on a gurney as a crew of soldiers and medics pushed him to the hospital. His lips turned up in a slight smile. He cradled his head in his hands, and dark sunglasses covered his eyes. Instead of the running suits he appeared in as an inmate, he wore khaki pants, a white shirt, and soft, pale loafers.

Mr. Mubarak had spent part his incarceration at the same military hospital. His lawyers have often argued that Mr. Mubarak, 85, is in ill-health, but a long series of contradictory reports -- including a false state news service report that a stroke had left him clinically dead -- have raised the questions about the possibility that his defense team and their allies were exaggerating to win him sympathy and better conditions.

Interior Ministry officials said the hospital was his choice of residence after leaving the prison. His other previous homes had been presidential palaces, which are no longer available to him, or a mansion in the Red Sea Resort of Sharm el Sheik, which is entangled in some of the corruption charges against him. His wife, Suzanne Mubarak, is reportedly living in Cairo and has visited him in prison. Their sons, Gamal and Alaa, both remain in a Cairo prison, held under other corruption charges.

Mr. Mubarak was released from prison the same day that a committee of jurists released a proposed constitutional overhaul that would in many ways bring back the Mubarak-era charter.

The package would remove provisions approved by last year's Islamist-led constitutional assembly that set a framework for applying the principles of Sharia law in accordance with established Sunni Muslim thought. But the overhaul preserves a longstanding clause grounding Egyptian law in the principles of Sharia. It brings back another clause left out last year that would limit women's equality where it contradicts Sharia.

On the question of rights, freedoms, women's equality, or decentralization, the proposed overhaul provides little or no improvement, legal analysts said. It still leaves broad and ill-defined loopholes for limiting freedoms of speech and assembly. On those questions, "it is essentially the same," he said Zaid al-Ali (CQ), a researcher at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

The overhaul is expected to be rushed through a government-dominated committee of 50, and then a national referendum -- a blistering pace compared with international norms for such debates.

Until then, the government's flagship state newspaper, Al Ahram, said Thursday, that the limits and duration of Mr. Mubarak's house arrest would be set entirely by the military-appointed government, under the state of emergency and suspension of due process that it has declared. It also stressed repeatedly that while under house arrest Mr. Mubarak would be unable to vote or enter politics, and that his further detention was "for his own safety and the safety of society."

A few dozen Mubarak supporters had gathered outside the Tora Prison to applaud his release, and they waved Egyptian flags as the helicopter departed.

Mr. Mubarak is still awaiting a retrial on the most serious charge against him: that he directed the killing of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators during the protests that ended his rule in February 2011. A judge initially convicted him of those charges last year but in an obviously self-contradictory ruling that all but begged to be appealed.

The judge said in the initial ruling that there was no evidence linking Mr. Mubarak to the police shooting of protesters, and the judge dismissed charges against Mr. Mubarak's subordinates in the chain of command.

But in a flowery speech full of broad denunciations of Mr. Mubarak's three decades in power, the judge essentially said he was sentencing Mr. Mubarak to life in prison on the general principle that as he president he should have been responsible.

At the time, the flimsy ruling set off widespread outrage and street protests. But on Thursday few seemed to remember that anger amid the protests by Mr. Morsi's supporters and the widening crackdown against them.

In the seven seeks since Mr. Morsi was deposed, the new authorities have unleashed even more deadly violence to crush protests by them: security forces have killed more than 1,000 Morsi supporters, and, according to a tally of state-media reports, imprisoned more than 1,000 of his Islamist supporters.

The new authorities argue that their crackdown is justified as a fight against "terrorism," on the grounds that some Morsi supporters carried arms, incited violence or attacked churches in the aftermath of the military takeover. But analysts suggest that the new government's own violence could diminish its enthusiasm about prosecuting Mr. Mubarak for overseeing a less severe crackdown.

Mr. Morsi's supporters say they feel a grim déjà vu. Mr. Mubarak is out of jail while Mr. Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, is a political prisoner, just as he was in the last days of Mr. Mubarak's rule. In fact, the charges filed against Mr. Morsi that have justified his continued detention after his removal from office relate to his escape from his extralegal imprisonment under Mr. Mubarak. The charges also allege, implausibly, that Mr. Morsi conspired in the jailbreak with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group.

Mohamed Badie, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the supreme guide, was charged this week with inciting murder and violence on the grounds that he allegedly urged Brotherhood members to kill attackers trying to burn down the organization's headquarters. Officials said eight people were shot dead outside the headquarters, although no one disputes that the attackers were in the process of razing the building and seeking to kill those inside. The police watched and did nothing.

The legal treatment of both former presidents underscores that Egyptian courts "have been deeply influenced by an overheated and sometimes hysterical political climate," said Nathan Brown, a legal scholar at George Washington University, noting that even in the cooler times the system was in many ways rigged to favor whoever was in power at the moment. "Authoritarianism is woven into the fabric of the Egyptian legal system," he said.

Asmaa Al Zohairy and Sarah Mousa contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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