CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Wednesday acquitted 24 loyalists of ousted President Hosni Mubarak who had been accused of organizing one of the most dramatic attacks on protesters during last year's uprising, the "Camel Battle," in which assailants on horses and camels charged into crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The 24 were found innocent on charges of manslaughter and attempted murder. The defendants included some of the biggest names of Mubarak's regime, including the former parliament speaker and the head of the now-dissolved ruling party, along with government ministers and businessmen. A 25th defendant died during the course of the trial.
The Feb. 2, 2011 assault left nearly a dozen people killed and was a major turning point in the 18-day wave of protests that led to Mubarak's downfall.
It came a day after Mubarak spoke on national television, saying he would eventually step down. The emotional speech won him sympathy and drained the numbers of protesters in a days-long sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising.
But then the attack came. A crowd of Mubarak supporters waded into the young activists at the sit-in. Amid the melee, a number of men on horses and camels swept in, trying to beat and trample protesters. The assault, widely aired on TV, turned into an all-out battle that lasted two days, with more protesters flooding into the square to defend it in clashes that saw the two sides pelting each other with stones, bricks and firebombs. In the end, the Mubarak supporters were driven away.
The attack and the images of young protesters fighting back reversed sympathies and galvanized the uprising. Many Egyptians who were sitting on the fence saw it as a desperate last ditch attempt to crush the revolt, and many accused Mubarak officials and pro-regime businessmen of paying thugs to carry out the attack. The wave of protests grew and on Feb. 11, 2011, Mubarak was forced out.
Judge Mustafa Abdullah said the defendants were acquitted because the testimony of the witnesses was weak and "driven by grudges between witnesses and the defendants due to partisan differences."
Abdullah also said some of the witnesses had criminal records, including one who had a record of perjury. Despite the list of known victims, the judge said he trusted the testimony of a general who was a member of the council that ruled Egypt during the transition, who said that no one was killed in the square during the battle.
The defendants' lawyers had asked for an acquittal because they said there was not enough evidence incriminating their clients. An official in the prosecutor general's office said an attorney has been commissioned to review the reasons for the verdict, a sign it will likely appeal.
A senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed el-Beltagi, said in comments published on its party's online newspaper that the acquittal is a "farce" and called on Egypt's new president, the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi to intervene to retry the defendants.
Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer whose center was involved in the case, said some evidence presented to the court was not taken into consideration and other evidence was tampered with. Some witnesses in the case changed their testimony from what they had given earlier to investigators, Eid said, blaming pressure from still powerful ex-regime loyalists.
Activists are planning a large rally on Friday criticizing Morsi's 3-month-old rule, and the acquittals of some of the most hated figures of Mubarak's regime are likely to fuel calls for justice.