A relative of a man killed during January violence against protesters faces… (Ahmed Youssef / EPA )
Reporting from Cairo — The first Egyptian police officer sentenced to death for killing protesters during the January revolution remained at large Monday as the country braced for a summer of trials on the police brutality that defined President Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Mohamed Ibrahim Abdul Monem was sentenced in absentia late Sunday for the Jan. 28 shooting deaths of 23 protesters rioting outside a Cairo police station. The court's ruling was quickly affirmed by the nation's top Islamic cleric, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, who reviews all death-penalty cases.
Abdul Monem told Egyptian TV over the weekend that he had killed no one while following orders to protect the police station. He said he would seek a new trial and accused the Interior Ministry of not standing by him. He has yet to explain why he hadn't appeared in court or why authorities hadn't apprehended him.
"The Interior Ministry abandoned my case," said Abdul Monem, who contended that he only fired into the ground in an attempt to disperse an angry mob at the police station. "The ministry didn't even assign lawyers to defend me."
The verdict against Abdul Monem came as families of protesters killed during the 18-day revolt hurled rocks at police and military vehicles after the trial against former Interior Minister Habib Adli was adjourned Sunday for a second time. Adli faces capital punishment on charges he ordered state security forces to violently crush an uprising, which led to the deaths of more than 800 protesters.
But the most anticipated case is the trial of Mubarak, set for August. The ousted Egyptian president is accused of financial crimes and of having a hand in the deaths of protesters. He could face the death sentence, and his fate is a crucial test of the ruling military council's ability to balance justice and the demands for blood from many Egyptians who suffered under Mubarak's government.
Though the country's economy is ailing, and confusion and worry linger over upcoming parliamentary elections and the writing of a new constitution, many Egyptians believe the country cannot move forward until the sins of the past are punished. They fear that Mubarak, who has been in a hospital since April with apparent heart problems, will maneuver to escape his day in court.
"Abdul Monem is just a street cop. Where are the superiors and the higher-ranked police officers?" said Mohamed Sayed, whose brother was killed in the protests. "Why aren't any of them convicted yet despite the fact that many of them have been on trial for months now? People like Habib Adli and others get their trials continuously adjourned."
Former top officials, including Trade Minister Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali and Adli, have been found guilty of corruption and abuse of power and sentenced to prison. Their trials offered a glimpse into the entrenched world of businesspeople and government officials who ran the country for personal benefit, even as more than 40% of the population lived on $2 or less a day.
But the death sentence against Abdul Monem is dramatic for an Egypt attempting to reconcile its past as it struggles toward a democratic future. Cases of police brutality seldom reached the courtrooms in Mubarak's repressive state; security forces brazenly roamed the country, torturing and demanding bribes. That an officer has been sentenced to death further breaks down the psychological barrier that had helped keep the former president in power.
Abdul Monem was assigned to Cairo's Zawiya Hamra police station, notorious for corruption and abuse. On Jan. 28, three days after the revolt began, protesters, some of them armed, descended on the building as they vented years of rage. In his TV interview, Abdul Monem said that he was inside when a commander told officers and police officers to fire their weapons to protect the building.
The attackers "set fire to all our vehicles and a street cop was shot and died on the spot, and three other street cops, including myself, were injured," he said. "I did not see one protester fall as I fired shots into the ground."
But prosecutors said Abdul Monem fired indiscriminately, killing 23 and wounding 16 others.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.