This trial alone won't fulfil Egypt's need to account for Mubarak's rule, but whatever the verdict it sends a strong message
Whatever the verdict, expected on Saturday, in the trial of Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, it should send a strong message to any future president that executive power will be bound by the rule of law.
Mubarak, his former interior minister Habib al-Adly and four top interior ministry aides are all charged with complicity in murder and attempted murder in connection with the killing of 225 peaceful anti-government demonstrators and wounding of more than 1,800 between 25 and 31 January last year.
Mubarak is the first former Arab head of state to appear in person in many decades in an ordinary court of law. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has been tried in absentia; Saddam Hussein of Iraq was tried before a special tribunal in 2005-06.
Judge Ahmed Refaat, the presiding judge in the north Cairo criminal court proceedings, has the discretion to delay issuing verdicts in the case. If he does so, it may be because they would land in the middle of a sharply polarised electoral battle to choose Mubarak's successor.
In the wake of the first round of presidential elections last week, Egypt's next president will either be Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which already dominates the parliament, or Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general and briefly Mubarak's last prime minister, who is the candidate of the Mubarak old guard.
Observers who followed the Mubarak trial proceedings say an acquittal is entirely possible. The lead prosecutor in the case has said publicly that state security and other agencies implicated in the shootings refused to co-operate with his inquiry or turn over requested information. And while Mubarak's involvement in the decision to use live fire against protesters may be surmised, it does not seem to have been proved.
Defence counsel, in their closing arguments, contended that while Mubarak and the interior ministry officials were being tried for complicity in murder and attempted murder, the prosecution did not identify the people actually believed to be responsible in its charging documents or elsewhere.
Mubarak is also charged with accepting a bribe from a Sharm el-Sheikh resort developer, among other corruption accusations. Mubarak's sons Alaa and Gamal are also charged with accepting bribes – villas in Sharm el-Sheikh – to secure their father's influence.
If Hosni Mubarak is convicted, the possible sentence could range from three years in prison on the corruption charge to the death penalty on the unlawful killings charges. But any verdict is likely to be followed by protracted appeals. Refaat made an abrupt decision to end the trial on 2 January and move to closing arguments the next day – despite the fact that defence lawyers had not withdrawn requests for additional witnesses or access to documents they considered important. Although the decision appears to be within the court's discretion under Egyptian law, it may have undermined these defendants' right to an adequate opportunity to present their defence and could leave any verdict vulnerable on appeal.
The serious crimes the trial addresses are limited to those that took place during the initial week of the uprising that led to Mubarak's fall. This trial alone thus cannot fulfil Egypt's need for comprehensive accountability for Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule. Such a process would have to include credible and impartial investigations and prosecutions for torture, enforced disappearances, and other systematic human rights abuse – not to mention serious rights violations, including torture, under the generals who eased Mubarak out of power.
The trial of Mubarak and his interior minister before an ordinary criminal court subject to ordinary criminal law and procedures stands in contrast to the military court trials of some 12,000 civilians since he was forced from office in February 2011.
The government has not indicated how it will respond to a verdict in Mubarak's case. The prosecutor-general has not clarified whether he intends to seek to put him on trial on other human rights or corruption charges.
If Judge Refaat announces a verdict on Saturday, it is likely to further roil an already tense political atmosphere in Egypt. When the verdict does come, it will remind whoever becomes Egypt's next president that regardless of the outcome, the work of judging the past 30 years is only starting.
Joe Stork is deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch