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Egypt's Mursi in crisis talks with judges over reform

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi gives a speech at the Koerber foundation for social challenge in Berlin January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio B
Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi gives a speech at the Koerber foundation for social challenge in Berlin January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio B

By Yasmine Saleh and Asma Alsharif

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi held crisis talks with the country's top judges on Monday after the justice minister resigned over demands by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood for a "purification" of the judiciary.

The secular, liberal and left-wing opposition denounced what it called a planned "Brotherhoodisation" of the judiciary and called for demonstrations outside parliament.

A presidential source said Mursi met the Supreme Judicial Council and the prosecutor general to discuss a draft law reforming the judiciary due to go through the Islamist-dominated upper house on Wednesday.

Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky tendered his resignation on Saturday following a protest by Mursi's Islamist backers to demand that judges appointed during ousted former President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule be purged.

A key provision of the draft proposed by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party would lower the mandatory retirement age for judges to 60 from 70, forcing hundreds of members of the judiciary to step down immediately.

Critics say it would eliminate more than 3,000 judges at a stroke, including most members of senior bodies such as the constitutional court which has repeatedly stymied Mursi's legislative and election plans.

Leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front called for demonstrations outside the Shura Council (upper house) on Wednesday to protest against what one senior liberal politician, Mohamed ElBaradei, called "the judges' massacre".

"The true goal of this project is to 'Brotherhoodise' the judiciary and replace independent judges with Brotherhood elements," the umbrella group said in a statement.

COURTS MAKE KEY RULINGS

Supporters of the bill, angered by the acquittal or release of some former Mubarak-era officials charged with corruption or abuses of power, deny that such a large number would be forced out but acknowledged it would remove at least 300 top judges seen as remnants of the former regime.

Mursi and the judiciary council also discussed the status of prosecutor general Talaat Ibrahim, accused by the opposition of Islamist bias, who is under pressure to quit after an appeals court ruled that his appointment by Mursi last year was illegal.

The presidential source declined to give details until decisions were taken. Asked whether Ibrahim would be offered an alternative position, the source said: "Could be but not sure."

The courts have repeatedly intervened to change the course of events since the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The constitutional court invalidated the law under which the first post-revolution parliament was elected, forcing its dissolution.

It also rejected the first attempt to replace that law, forcing Mursi to cancel plans for parliamentary elections due to have started this month.

An appeals court in January upheld appeals by Mubarak and his former interior minister against life sentences on charges of complicity in the killing of hundreds of demonstrators in the uprising that toppled him.

Two other courts have ordered Mubarak released because he has served the maximum permitted time in pre-trial custody, but he remains in jail on other charges.

An outspoken supporter of judicial independence during Mubarak's era, Mekky also opposed aspects of the draft law that he said would give the government too much control over the make-up of the judiciary.

(Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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