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Police Crush Cairo Protests


Egyptian riot police have broken up demonstrations around a Cairo courthouse where two pro-reform judges were to face a disciplinary hearing following their allegations of fraud in last year's elections.

Again and again demonstrators gathered in the streets and sidewalks of downtown Cairo, chanting slogans like "Freedom, Freedom, where are you?" Again and again the police had the same response.

They rushed the protesters, dragging the leaders away, pushing others to the ground, kicking and beating them. The protesters scattered, regrouped, and the police charged them again and again.

Some of the officers wore uniforms and riot gear, others wore plain clothes but carried heavy batons. The demonstrators came from many groups, including the pro-reform movement known as Kifaya, several leftist political parties and the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Human rights activist Hossam Bahgat is head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He saw police attack protesters to disrupt a television interview.

"The police then using excessive force dispersed this interview and arrested some of them," he said. "I saw some of them being carried into police trucks while their noses and mouths were bleeding."

Several people were injured when they fell to the ground as people fled the advancing officers.

An American reporter, Hannah Allam of Knight Ridder newspapers, was surrounded by plainclothes security and manhandled as she attempted to take a picture of someone being beaten.

She said the police groped her and tried to tear off her blouse before colleagues heard her screams and intervened.

A few meters away, an al-Jazeera cameraman was severely beaten, his videotape confiscated. Television crews from Reuters and CNN were also attacked and had their cameras smashed or taken.

A uniformed officer tried to smash the digital camera of a VOA reporter.

Thousands of riot police sealed off the area around the courthouse where the judges' disciplinary hearing was to take place. The fate of the judges is seen as a sign of the strength of democratic reforms and judicial independence in Egypt.

Lawyer and women's rights activist Ragia Omran said police were not always differentiating between protesters and innocent bystanders.

"We tried to get to the Syndicate, the Judges Syndicate," she explained. "All the streets leading are completely blocked. I do not know what is happening. It is crazy. People, normal ordinary citizens are not able to go to their daily chores, do their things. It is crazy. They are just preventing everyone from just walking down the street now."

The chaos forced authorities to postpone the disciplinary hearing for a week. One of the judges, Hisham El-Bastawisy, said police would not let a group of his fellow judges into the courthouse to support him, and he refused to enter himself after they were barred. He said he will boycott the hearing until police release all of the detained protesters.

"They are beating the people in the street," El-Bastawisy says. "The women. It is like a war in Cairo. I will not go to that court until releasing everyone they catch. I cannot go to a trial in this situation. Thousands of policemen. It is not a trial. It is a war. It is a real war. War in the streets."

Bastawisy and another judge, Mahmoud Mekki, faced the disciplinary hearing and could lose their jobs because they went public with allegations of fraud during last year's parliamentary elections. Egypt's judges were responsible for overseeing the poll.

The judiciary is seen as the only branch of Egypt's government with any independence from President Hosni Mubarak.

Police have cracked down on demonstrations in support of the judges, during the last several weeks. More than 100 people had been arrested prior to Thursday's demonstrations.