It was unknown “criminal elements,” not the police, who killed protesters in Egypt during the first days of the uprising, according to a Cairo Criminal Court ruling in the landmark trial of former president Hosni Mubarak.
In the 118-page reasoning of its verdict released on Wednesday, the court explained why it had acquitted six top interior ministry generals despite sentencing former interior minister Habib El Adly and Mubarak himself to life in prison.
The verdicts sparked an outcry and prompted days of street protests.
But the much-awaited explanation confirmed what had been suspected all along: The prosecution’s case was weak.
It also spoke volumes about the failure of state institutions to co-operate with investigators and was a testament to the need to reform the police force, as well as the prosecutor's office, which is headed by a Mubarak appointee.
"None of the actual perpetrators of the actions of premeditated or attempted murder in Tahrir between January 25 and 31, 2011, or even after, were actually arrested,” the court said.
"Criminal elements who were not identified by investigations infiltrated the scene of the events and fired gunshots and birdshot pellets on peaceful demonstrators injuring and killing them."
The prosecutor built his case on the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses, but the court wrote that it did not “feel comfortable about the testimonies in their entirety after it went through the prosecution's papers carefully,” since “the testimonies were made under extraordinary conditions involving hostility against and enmity towards the police force specifically."
The court also claimed there was was no material evidence – weapons, audio or visual recordings, communication logs or meeting minutes – to prove that members of the police force killed or injured protesters, despite widespread media reports and amateur video showing police beating, firing on and running over protesters.
Police violence was apparent on the streets of Cairo on January 25, the first day of the uprising.
For many Egyptians, the verdict in Mubarak’s trial was the moment of truth the struggling yet ongoing revolution had been waiting for. The fate of the uprising, activists and ordinary citizens maintain, was tied to a lack of accountability and ending the government and police impunity that helped spark the revolution in the first place.
For months, dozens of policemen accused of killing and injuring protesters have been acquitted in case after case, with only a handful handed light sentences for “excessive use of force.” On Wednesday, as the court released its reasoning, 13 more police officers were acquitted.
But while Cairo's criminal court, headed by Judge Ahmed Refaat, let the police force off the hook, it sent a strong message of political responsibility by sentencing Mubarak and Adly to life.
"They deliberately refrained from taking positive action in appropriate timing … by not issuing orders … entailed by their jobs to protect the homeland, citizens' lives, public and private property as per the law and constitution, despite their clear knowledge of the events,” the court wrote.
Therefore, Mubarak and Adly "have participated with unknown assailants in the form of aiding and abetting in crimes of premeditated as well as attempted murder."
The judges maintained that the defendants didn't act because they wanted to maintain their positions in power.
Their decision, they wrote, is “without a shadow of a doubt.”
The lengthy document also offered the first official glimpse into what high profile officials, who testified under a strict media gag order, said during the case.
In his testimony, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman – who was briefly appointed vice president during the uprising – said he discussed the imminent protests with Mubarak in a meeting on January 20.
Suleiman later warned Mubarak that "foreign and criminal elements have smuggled weapons, positioned themselves among protesters and have clashed with others,” the court wrote.
Suleiman’s testimony appears to have been key in the court’s decision not to sentence Mubarak on separate corruption charges for exporting natural gas to Israel below market price. The court said that based on testimonies, it saw that Mubarak "had nothing to do with the issue of exporting natural gas to Israel or setting its price and that that was the business of the Petroleum Authority."
Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council and Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades, also testified in the case.
He said he held "several" meetings with the president to discuss the protests and the subsequent fallout and that he had "surmised that outlaws have intervened during the events." Tantawi reportedly added that it was the responsibility of the president to issue orders to protect the homeland and that there was no way Mubarak did not know what was going on.
Tantawi’s testimony had been a sore point for anti-military protesters. Leaked at the time, it was seen as favourable to Mubarak in as much as it did not establish that the former president had issued orders to the army to fire on protesters.
The court’s reasoning is likely going to inflame even further the angry protesters who have been gathering in squares around the country for days.
For many, the trial of Mubarak had been about more than his actions during his last days in power – it was about holding to account his 30-year police state. In that sense, those seeking justice have been left feeling that they have lost a major battle.