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Egypt...s Riot Police Arrest, Beat Protesters Supporting Judges

By Michael Slackman
THE NEW YORK TIMES


CAIRO, EGYPT

Thousands of riot police officers sealed off access to the High Court on Thursday, beating and arresting protesters who had turned out to support two judges facing a disciplinary panel because they had accused the government of election fraud.

The huge show of force, appearing larger even than what was deployed in the Sinai after four bombings there this week, seemed to signal that President Hosni Mubarak’s government had reached a breaking point over shows of dissent.

The focus was a relatively small demonstration over the treatment of the two judges and in support of more than 80 judges who had been staging a sit-in for more than a week at the stately old Judge’s Club to demand an independent judiciary.

The persistent demands by the group, who represent thousands of judges across the country, has united a wide swath of political opposition and has sparked new life in a reform movement that had withered after the presidential election in September. Since then the government has increasingly retrenched from a position of generally allowing more political freedom.

By Thursday, after days of dealing with the attacks in the Sinai and low-intensity clashes between the police and protesters in Cairo, the government seemed overwhelmed. Around 8 a.m., massive green troop carriers rumbled into the center of the city and deployed more than 3,000 troops, a number that swelled to about 10,000 by midday, according to witnesses and videotapes.

The army of riot officers pressed in with long wooden poles and body-length shields to seal off the judges from a relatively small group of supporters on the street. Eyewitnesses said at least 50 demonstrators were arrested, though there was no way to verify that figure.

The police also arrested a journalist for al-Jazeera network who had reported — incorrectly — that an insurgent attack on the police had spread into the previously calm delta region, a report that instantly caused a tumult in the capital. The network retracted the story, but the government held the reporter, saying he was guilty of “spreading confusion.”

The demonstrators had gathered especially to support Mahmoud Mekky and Hesham Bastawisi, the two judges brought before the disciplinary panel because they had accused the government and other judges of forgery in connection with the last parliamentary elections.