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Egypt judge shoulders historic task in Mubarak case

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CAIRO: For the final case of his career, Egyptian Judge Ahmed Refaat has no easy task: to deliver justice in the trial of the first Arab head of state to appear in court since popular uprisings swept the Middle East.

With audiences across the region glued to their television screens to see former President Hosni Mubarak’s second court appearance on Monday, the 69-year-old justice is weighing in on a case that Arab media has dubbed the "trial of the century".

But Refaat is unlikely to be swayed much by public opinion. He has built a reputation as a man who goes by the book and has a fondness for procedure.

"I rule based on evidence, precedent and documents," Refaat once said. "Public opinion will not absolve me when I meet my God."

Refaat has seen his share of sensitive cases involving politicians and officials who served under Mubarak.

In 2005, he sent a former chairman of parliament’s economic affairs committee, Abdullah Tayel, and 18 other defendants to jail for illegally acquiring public funds and money laundering, in a corruption scandal that first made it to court in 1999.

Tayel was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail and fined $21 million for providing businessmen with illegal credit facilities through his role as chairman of Misr Exterior Bank — an Egyptian-Spanish joint venture.

Refaat also ruled in an antiquities smuggling case that brought to court a former secretary general of Mubarak’s now disbanded National Democratic Party.

He is well remembered for releasing 16 defendants in what many observed to be a political, trumped-up trial against the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest opposition group to Mubarak.

Refaat, like all judges in Egypt, reaches retirement age when he turns 70, in his case on Oct. 17. But his retirement date will be extended to the end of June 2012.

If he fails to hand out a verdict by then, another judge would continue to oversee the Mubarak case. It is still unclear how such a handover would take place.

In the meantime, Refaat will have to keep in check hundreds of lawyers in a tense and charged trial in which Mubarak, his Interior Minister Habib El-Adly and six other top officers are accused of conspiring to kill some 850 protesters.

‘Theatre stage’

Refaat often appears impatient with seemingly unending demands and prolonged speeches. In the opening session of Mubarak’s trial on Aug. 3, he was frequently seen shaking his head with his glasses hanging over the tip of his nose, telling defense lawyers: "what are your demands?" "Sit down, sir." "Give the microphone to your colleague".

On Sunday, Refaat adjourned Adly’s trial session four times and abruptly postponed the hearing to Sept. 5 after a group of lawyers refused to obey his commands to calm down.

Refaat has no patience for theatrics.

"You are in the witness stand, not on a theatre stage," local newspapers have quoted Refaat as telling a witness once.

Refaat will be remembered as the first Egyptian to have tried a former ruler. For many, he is a "symbol of Egypt’s independent judiciary".

Unlike Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Mubarak is being tried in a civilian court rather than by judges appointed under foreign instruction.

Former Tunisian President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, exiled in Saudi Arabia, went on trial in absentia.

"Ahmed Refaat, the respected, quiet judge, could have never imagined he would be the first Egyptian in history to try an Egyptian pharaoh," Al-Ahram newspaper wrote.

 

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