CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Thursday acquitted former leader Hosni Mubarak's two sons and his last prime minister of corruption charges, a verdict announced just hours after security forces arrested a prominent activist as part of an intensifying crackdown against icons of the nation's 2011 uprising.
The Cairo criminal court found Gamal and Alaa Mubarak and Ahmed Shafiq innocent of corruption in a case that arose from the 1995 sale of a plot of land to Mubarak's sons by an association led at the time by the former prime minister. Prosecutors claim the land was sold to the two at a price lower than its market value and were given a larger plot than what was stated in the contract.
Also acquitted were four retired generals who served as board members of the association.
Alaa, a wealthy businessman, and Gamal, his father's one-time heir apparent, are facing a separate trial on other corruption charges. They have been held in detention since April 2011, two months after their father resigned in the face of a popular uprising.
A small group of Mubarak supporters in the courtroom cheered the verdict. "Oh Gamal Mubarak, the presidency awaits you," they chanted.
Shafiq, a career air force officer like Mubarak, has lived in exile abroad since he was narrowly defeated by Islamist Mohammed Morsi in a presidential runoff in June 2012. Security officials at Cairo's airport say Thursday's verdict repeals standing instructions that Shafiq must be arrested on arrival at any of the country's entry ports, clearing the way for his return. It is not clear whether Shafiq plans to resume his involvement in politics.
A statement by the court said that the irregularity committed by Mubarak's sons and Shafiq is no more than an "administrative violation" that is not criminal. It also said that Alaa and Gamal Mubarak have given back the plot. It did not say whether the two could face any other penalties.
Morsi was toppled in a popularly backed military coup on July 3 and is on trial for inciting murder while awaiting a separate trial on charges of conspiring with foreign militant groups. Mubarak was sentenced to life in 2012 for failing to stop the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising that ended his 29-year rule. He was acquitted on appeal and is now being retried.
The airport officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Meanwhile, authorities arrested Mohammed Adel of April 6, one of several youth movements that led the 2011 uprising.
Lawyer Gamal Eid said Adel and five others from The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights in Cairo were seized along with computers during the raid early Thursday. All six were blindfolded and handcuffed when taken to an unknown location where they were kept for seven hours.
Eid said the six were later taken to a police station before the five were released. Adel remained in police custody.
The lawyer said security officers pushed a gun inside the mouth of one of the five during their detention to make him be quiet and beat up another. His account could not be independently verified, but rights activists have complained of growing police brutality in the five months since Morsi's ouster.
A statement by 14 Egyptians rights groups denounced the raid, saying it pointed to a "new chapter of repression, dictatorship and autocracy in Egypt."
Already in detention are three of the 2011 uprising's best known youth leaders: Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Maher. They are accused of breaking a recent law that places draconian conditions on street protests and of assaulting police.
The acquittal of the Mubarak sons and Shafiq and the detention of the 2011 uprising leaders likely will give credibility to claims that the government installed by the military in the wake of Morsi's removal was prepared to accommodate Mubarak-era figures to counter the opposition by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. Cozying up to the Mubarak-era figures and businessmen also could widen the government's base of support at a time when the battered economy is showing no sign of a quick recovery and activists are stepping up criticism of its human rights record.
Nearly all policemen charged in the killing of more than 800 protesters during the 2011 uprising have been acquitted or receive suspended sentences, causing an outcry among activists and victims' families.
Morsi's supporters wage near-daily protests in Cairo and other major cities to demand his reinstatement. The protests often end violently.
The government will face its first test when the draft constitution penned by a 50-member panel appointed by the Interim President Adly Mansour is put to a nationwide vote on Jan. 14-15. The Brotherhood says it will boycott the vote and called on its followers to take to the streets to protest during the two-day referendum.
Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected by the summer of 2014, although it has not been finally decided which will be held first. Mansour, the chief judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court, on Thursday held the first of four meetings with politicians, associations, unions and youth groups at the end of which he is expected to announce a firm and final timetable for the two votes.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.