Last week in Egypt, integrity became an attribute to be bought, not earned. Former President Hosni Mubarak and some of his former ministers tried to barter their illicit wealth in return for immunity from prosecution on corruption charges.
Prosecutor General Talaat Abdallah underlined this deal-making approach to justice by lifting a travel ban on 10 Mubarak-era officials after they had repaid some illicit funds.
If money can buy impunity, then not only will justice be for sale and owned by the rich, but incentives for accumulating illicit wealth will mount. It is a great irony and slap in the face for the people of Egypt that the corrupt can buy impunity with money first stolen from the people.
The independence and fairness of a transparent judiciary that upholds accountability under the law for all are strong tools against corruption. If impunity is for sale, it corrodes the rule of law, and corruption becomes a certainty. Does recuperating pennies for stolen millions serve justice? Those who braved a corrupt regime might think differently.
Transitional governments face difficult choices about providing accountability for past crimes against the daily exigencies of advancing economic progress. But selling amnesties do not help a scarred nation move forward.
Egypt’s judicial elite should reflect on the need for a clean break with a crony capitalist system in which a few enriched themselves at the expense of many.
Mubarak and company are not profiting from laws they passed but from amendments to the 1997 investment law that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces passed on 3 January 2012 to allow this kind of deal making on impunity for cash.
Amendments to Articles 7 and 66 of the law allow reconciliation proceedings for those prosecuted in corruption cases: in effect, impunity in exchange for paying back illicit gains. Victims of corruption are not consulted.
Judicial officials have also faced criticism as courts cleared former high-level officials of corruption, such as former Culture Minister Farouk Hosni.
The Justice Ministry may be waking up to the criticism of its handling of the corruption file. Last week, it drafted a law to speed up recovery of stolen assets from the Mubarak era. So far, no assets have been recovered from abroad.
It is not yet clear just how much public money former officials or their cronies siphoned off, though estimates are in the billions of dollars.
Repatriation of stolen assets is a complicated and often long judicial process, and the fear is that foreign states cannot legally freeze assets forever. So far, Switzerland and the UK have frozen US$700 million of Mubarak’s personal assets, but proceedings to return them to Egyptian state coffers are far from completion.
Cutting deals now with those facing corruption charges in exchange for small financial gains will hurt Egypt rather than helping it build a reputation for judicial integrity. It would endorse and therefore continue the injustices of the previous era that people rose up against.
You cannot build a reputation for accountability and integrity by putting a price tag on impunity from corruption charges.
Christoph Wilcke is Middle East and North Africa regional director at Transparency International.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.