- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

CAIRO — Egyptian security forces yesterday beat and arrested protesters who tried to gather in support of two reformist judges.

The judges, Hisham el-Bastiwisy and Mahmoud Mekki, were scheduled to appear at a disciplinary hearing on charges that they defamed the judiciary by speaking to the press about purported fraud in November parliamentary elections. Their hearing was postponed until Thursday after the judges arrived at Egypt’s High Court yesterday morning amid heavy security but refused to enter.

Judge Mekki, in an interview, said the two judges would continue to boycott the hearing unless the proceedings were opened to the public and the presiding judge was removed.

Judge el-Bastiwisy made an additional demand, asking for the release of the more than 50 Egyptian activists who are in jail as a result of their participation in peaceful street demonstrations backing the judges since late April.

“I have decided not to go in [to the hearing] until the government releases everyone put in jail for supporting us. It is not illegal to support us,” Judge el-Bastiwisy said.

Many opposition politicians have heralded the two judges as heroes for risking dismissal with their strong stand against vote fraud. Hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned but tolerated Islamist group that is the nation’s strongest opposition force, have taken to the streets in the past two weeks to back the judges, as have secular leftist activists.

The escalating protests in favor of the judges appear to have worried the government of President Hosni Mubarak. An estimated 10,000 security personnel were deployed for yesterday’s hearing, a large section of Cairo was sealed off to traffic and pedestrians, and a major bridge into downtown Cairo was shut.

Egyptians arriving in the area to go to work were told by police to return home. Some hospital employees begged to get through the police lines to reach a nearby hospital; many were refused.

Some protesters, however, managed to get through the police cordons. “Judges, judges, protect us from dictatorship,” a group of about 150 activists chanted. They were surrounded quickly by police and beaten with wooden batons. Some were covered in blood as they were led away, and at least five were arrested, witnesses said.

The recent jailing of activists, many of whom are part of the Kifaya (Enough) protest movement, marks a toughening of government tactics toward protesters. In September, under pressure from Washington to take steps toward democracy, the Mubarak government began to tolerate some street demonstrations. That show of tolerance appears to have come to an end.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration was “deeply concerned” about the events yesterday. He said Washington “will continue to push for political reform and freedom of speech and press” in Egypt.

Mr. Mubarak, who was traveling in Morocco yesterday, has refused to intervene, calling the case an internal matter of the judiciary.

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