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Egypt Police Smash Protests as Court Rules on Reformers


A disciplinary panel in Egypt has cleared one judge of misconduct charges, but reprimanded another in a case that has become a symbol for judicial independence and the Egyptian reform movement. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Cairo that outside the courthouse, police dispersed protests in support of the judges.

The police broke up most of the protests almost before they started, and sealed off streets around the courthouse starting late Wednesday. Nervous business owners closed their stores anytime a crowd started to gather outside.

Police chased reporters away from a hotel near the courthouse. They had been seen dragging a protester inside, and plainclothes security officers swarmed over the area, carrying short heavy clubs.

"We now know that 90 percent of the protesters in Abbasiya were beaten up and taken because there was not enough press there," said protest organizer Rabab El-Mehd.

El-Mehdi says the police changed their tactics after last week's very public crackdowns.

"Yes, they did two things," she said. "They either trapped them before the meeting point, which is what happened to the group that was going to Mugamma el-Galaa, because that was a meeting point we agreed on yesterday. Or what happened with Souq el-Tawfiya is that a group got together randomly and once they started chanting, the security group then started the beating up and the arrests."

The one protest that did not get violently dispersed consisted of most of the Muslim Brotherhood members of parliament.

The officially banned, but tolerated, group said about 500 of its rank-and-file members were arrested during the course of the day. The interior ministry said it had detained 240 Brotherhood members.

Two high-profile members were among the arrested - policy chief Essam El-Erian and former Brotherhood parliamentary leader Mohamed Morsi.

The Muslim Brotherhood lawmakers wore black sashes reading "The people's representatives support Egyptian judges."

Parliament member Mohamed Shaker Sennar said they came to show support and to call for the independence of the judiciary.

The judges were hauled before the disciplinary hearing and charged with bringing the judiciary into disrepute after they went public with allegations of fraud during last year's parliamentary election, which was overseen by Egypt's judges.

One charged judge, Mahmoud Mekki, was cleared of any wrongdoing. The other, Hisham El-Bastawisy, was reprimanded but did not lose his job.

He was not in court. He had a heart attack Wednesday morning and is still in the hospital.

The judges have become a symbol for not just judicial independence, but for the Egyptian reform movement in general, according to Georgetown University Professor Samer Shehata.

"A judge told me about a week and a half ago that everyone who wants to say something nasty about the Mubarak regime is saying, today, quote, 'I am with the judges.' And I think that is true. This goes far beyond Bastawisi and Mekki," Shehata said. "And they have become national heroes, that is true. But this is the latest battle between the Mubarak regime and 75 million Egyptians."

Hundreds of reform activists have been arrested during the past three weeks as they rallied in support of the judges.

Kifaya activist Sayed Ragab says he has not been home for nine days out of fear that the police are looking for him. But he would not stay away from the protests.

"The regime must understand that we will not be silent or afraid, no matter how many restrictions or security forces they throw at us," he said. "We will persist and persevere so we can free ourselves."

In a different Cairo courthouse, the Egyptian Court of Cassation rejected an appeal by opposition politician Ayman Nour, who placed second in last year's presidential election. He was convicted in December and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of forgery that he says were trumped up to discredit him.

His lawyers had appealed against the verdict, saying the judge in his case was biased against him and failed to follow due process. But the appeals court refused to hear the case, confirming his five-year sentence.