Judge Hesham el-Bastawisy, deputy head of Egypt's Court of Cassation, the country's highest appellate court, was among the group of judges who had asked international legal authorities to investigate if those allegedly involved in ballot tampering were not brought to account by April.

They threatened - but did not carry through on - a boycott of run-off election monitoring to protest police blockades of polling stations and the authorities having allowed "thugs" to assault judges in some polling stations.

The four have been vocal in their criticism of government interference in judiciary demands for independence. The confrontation has been in the making for nearly a year, with hundreds of liberal judges calling for reform of the Egyptian legal system.

'Appalled'

"I'm very appalled that they want to interrogate us for slander instead of investigating and questioning the judges who are accused of vote rigging," El-Bastawisy told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.

"I don't understand why state security is involved in the matter, do we have explosives, weapons or plotting a coup?" he asked.

"I don't understand why state security is involved in the matter, do we have explosives, weapons or plotting a coup?"

Hesham el-Bastawisy,
Deputy Head of Egypt's Court of Cassation
 

"Everything we did and our goal is to defend the right of Egyptians to have independent, just judges that are not subject to the government, and for elections to be fair," he added.

The four face interrogation after another judge filed a complaint with authorities over their allegations of rigging the parliamentary vote.

More judicial authority

T
he other judges to be questioned are Ahmed Mekky, Mahmoud Mekky and Mahmoud el-Khodeiri.

Judges have demanded the right to supervise what goes on outside and inside the polling stations. The recent election was marred by government supporters intimidating and blocking voters outside stations as well as allegations of ballot stuffing in the counting process.

The judges said they saw a link between the move to interrogate the four judges and plans for a protest gathering by judges at one of their clubs on Friday in Alexandria. Similar protests were expected at other club branches in the country.

The judges will be demonstrating a so-far secret new law drafted by the pro-government Supreme Judicial Council, which the liberal jurists fear does not satisfy their drive for reform. The council was responsible for removing the judges' immunity.

Fighting fraud

"This is a kind of terrorism aimed at blocking our demands to halt vote fraud," Judge Mahmoud el-Khodeiri, head of Alexandria judges club, told reporters from Alexandria. He is widely credited for launching a campaign by judges demanding to end election irregularities. 
 

Mubarak has not granted full
independence to the judiciary 

"We are ready for everything, but the beginning is not good. Everybody in Egypt and the world know we did nothing wrong, they are the ones who are committing endless mistakes," el-Khodeiri said.

The last major confrontation between the Egyptian government and the judiciary was in 1969 - the so-called "slaughter of the judiciary", when, Gamal Abdel Nasser, then president fired more than 200 "rebellious judges".

Political interference

In addition to the latest confrontation with the judges over claims of election fraud, the government has come under heavy criticism from opposition figures for a decree by Hosni Mubarak, the President, last week that effectively postpones for two years elections for local council seats that were to have taken place in April.

The decision was widely seen as an attempt by Mubarak to block further electoral gains by the Muslim Brotherhood, which made an astonishing showing in the parliamentary elections late last year despite violent interference by the government.

Egypt has one of the most highly developed and influential judicial structures in the Arab world. Many judges want parliament to adopt legislation that would make the judiciary completely independent of government control.