Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 April - 3 May 2006
Issue No. 792
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A judicial Intifada?

Today's emergency meeting of the general assembly of the Judges' Club comes after a week of escalating conflict between the judiciary and state authorities, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

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Protesters camp in front of the Judges' Club before police arrest them and beat Judge Mahmoud Hamza

Today the Judges' Club will hold an emergency meeting to protest Minister of Justice Mahmoud Abul-Leil's recommendation, two weeks ago, that 10 pro-reform judges be subjected to disciplinary action. In his request for the referral Abul-Leil alleged that the 10 had tarnished the judiciary's image by accusing colleagues of complicity in vote rigging during the 2005 parliamentary elections.

The emergency meeting coincides with Mahmoud Mekki and Hisham Bastawisi's hearing before the disciplinary committee affiliated to the government-controlled Supreme Judiciary Council (SJC). Mekki and Bastawisi, widely perceived as the leaders of the pro-reform judges, are both deputy chairmen of the Court of Cassation. They have been among the most vocal critics of police intervention in last year's parliamentary elections.

Mekki and Bastawisi warned that the decision to refer them to the disciplinary committee is the opening shot in a government campaign to pick off pro-reform judges. Bastawisi told Al-Ahram Weekly that he expected the putsch to be similar to that of 1969. "Then," said Bastawisi, "the regime of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser tried to compel judges to join the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) -- the country's only political institution at the time. When the majority of judges refused to bow to regime pressure they were subjected en masse to disciplinary action and later were either dismissed or transferred to administrative jobs."

Abul-Leil's decision to demand disciplinary action followed a request submitted by Prosecutor- General Maher Abdel-Wahed to Fathi Khalifa -- SJC's chairman and head of the Court of Cassation -- that they be referred to a disciplinary board. The request, Mekki and Bastawisi told the independent weekly Sawt Al-Umma (Voice of the Nation) on 12 December, 2005, alleged they had prepared a blacklist of judges implicated in vote rigging during the last parliamentary elections. Mahmoud Siddiq Borhan, whose name was cited by Sawt Al-Umma as topping the blacklist, subsequently complained to the SJC that his reputation had been tarnished and demanded Mekki and Bastawisi be disciplined.

The two judges have denied Borhan's claims, saying that Sawt Al-Umma obtained the blacklist from the Lawyers' Syndicate and that they had been careful not to name colleagues suspected of complicity in electoral fraud.

The additional eight judges referred to disciplinary action face three charges, says the SJC's Khalifa: breaking rules on neutrality by accepting to appear on TV satellite channels to deliver their views on political matters; accusing state officials and SJC members of electoral fraud and violating judicial protocol. This last charge, said Khalifa, concerns three of his deputies -- Yehia Galal, Nagi Dirballah and Assem Abdel-Gabbar -- at the Court of Cassation who agreed to join an independent committee formed by the Judges Club to investigate vote rigging during the 2005 parliamentary elections.

The exchange of mutual recriminations between the Judges Club and SJC escalated when, in the early hours of Monday, police attacked a camp set up in front of the Judges' Club in solidarity with their pro-reform demands. Fifteen people were arrested and one judge, Mahmoud Hamza, was hospitalised following the attack in which the police used clubs and batons.

The solidarity camp had been organised by Kifaya activists in support of a sit-in at the Judges' Club, that began on 19 April, protesting the referral of the 10. Zakaria Abdel-Aziz, chairman of the 8,000-member Judges Club, vowed the sit-in would continue until pro-reform colleagues are exonerated and their independence guaranteed. Political activists of all stripes joined human rights organisations in rallying to support the Judges' Club.

George Ishak, coordinator of Kifaya, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the battle for judicial independence was a battle for all pro-reform forces in Egypt. "We want to send a message to the regime of President Mubarak: please live up to your election campaign promises and move the country towards genuine democratisation and political reform."

There are persistent rumours that Abdel-Aziz wrote to President Mubarak requesting he intervene and express his backing for judicial independence. On Sunday Mubarak told the state- run Al-Gomhouriya newspaper that "talk about a clamp down on pro-reform judges is entirely unfounded. The fact is that a clash has erupted between the Judges Club on one hand and the SJC on the other and it is far from being in the interests of the state to fuel the conflict."

And on Tuesday, in a move widely seen as an attempt to contain the crisis, Abdel-Aziz met with Adli Hussein, governor of Qalyoubiya and a former senior judge.

The Judges' Club year-long campaign for a new law guaranteeing judicial independence has brought it into direct conflict with the SJC. But while President Mubarak promised during the presidential election campaign that he would request the government to draft a new law ensuring full separation between the judiciary and the executive nine months later the promise has yet to be acted upon. The SJC has repeatedly dismissed the Judges' Club's own recommendations for amendments to the 1972 Judiciary Authority Law, which include the election, rather than appointment of SJC members, and a statutory retirement age of 70. The Judges' Club is also pressing for budgetary and supervisory independence from the Ministry of Justice.

"This battle has exposed Mubarak's other election campaign reform pledges as hollow," said Ishak, citing Mubarak's earlier promise to abolish the emergency law.

On 8 April Mubarak told Al-Arabiya TV satellite channel that the emergency law will remain in force until the government drafts alternative anti-terror legislation. The emergency law, which is due to be renewed next month, is likely to be extended for a further two years.

"This is another example of how Mubarak has reneged on his promises," said Ishak, who believes the regime will use of recent terrorist acts in Sinai, sectarian strife in Alexandria and last week's uncovering of an alleged Jihadist cell to push the extension through parliament.

In the month and half before the summer recess the People's Assembly is scheduled to debate legislative reforms including the abolition of custodial sentences for publication offences. Given the current atmosphere few observers, opposition or independent parliamentarians expect the debate to be smooth.

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