Egypt's ex-President Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison Saturday for his role in the killing of protesters during last year's revolution that forced him from power, a verdict that caps a stunning fall from grace for a man who ruled the country as his personal fiefdom for nearly three decades.

The sentence against the former leader appeared aimed at defusing tensions ahead of a divisive runoff presidential race that pits Mubarak's last prime minister against the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate.

A life sentence in Egypt is 25 years in prison.

Judge Ahmed Rifaat's Sentencing Statement

"The people released a collective sigh of relief after a nightmare that did not, as is customary, last for a night, but for almost 30 black, black, black years whose darkness resembled that of a winter night.

The peaceful sons of this nation came out from every deep valley, each struggling against injustice, dismay, oppression and humiliation. They headed toward Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt's capital, demanding only justice, freedom and democracy ... from those who held a tight grip on them and committed grave sins, tyranny and corruption."

Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted on corruption charges, but the sons still faced a separate trial on charges of insider trading. Ex-interior minister Habib el-Adly also was sentenced to life for the protester killings. Six other security officials were acquitted.

"Justice was not served," said Ramadan Ahmed, whose son was killed on Jan. 28 last year. "This is a sham."

Judge Ahmed Rifaat delivered a strongly worded statement before handing down the sentences. Mubarak, who wore sunglasses and a light brown jacket over his clothes, and his co-defendants were in an iron cage.

Rifaat described Mubarak's era as "30 years of darkness" and "a darkened nightmare" that ended only when Egyptians rose up to demand change.

Mubarak remained silent inside court cage while his once-powerful sons appeared nervous and had dark circles under their eyes. His elder son Alaa whispered verses from the Qur'an.

The 84-year-old Mubarak was wheeled away from the courtroom on a gurney and then ferried in a helicopter from the police academy that was used by the court in Cairo.

Deposed leader suffers 'health crisis'

Egypt's state media said Mubarak suffered a "health crisis" during the transfer to Cairo's Torah prison hospital.

Egyptian security officials say Hosni Mubarak resisted leaving the helicopter that flew him to a prison hospital.

They said the former leader was tearful Saturday as he pleaded with officials to take him back to the military hospital where he has stayed since his trial began Aug. 3. It took his escorts 30 minutes to persuade him to leave the aircraft and enter Torah prison's hospital.

After the sentencing, scuffles between Mubarak supporters and opponents broke out inside and outside the courtroom, reflecting the deep polarization of the country since Mubarak was overthrown on Feb. 11, 2011.

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In this video image taken from Egyptian state television, 84-year-old Hosni Mubarak is seen in the defendant's cage as a judge reads the verdict. (Egyptian State TV/Associated Press)

One of the uprising's key pro-democracy groups, April 6, rejected the verdict, saying Rifaat at once paid homage to the protesters and ignored the grief of the families of those killed by acquitting the top police commanders.

"We will continue to cleanse Egypt from corruption," the group said.

US-based Human Rights Watch called the verdict a "landmark conviction" but criticized the prosecution for failing to fully investigate the case.

Angered by the acquittals of the Mubarak sons and six top police officers, lawyers for the victims' families broke out chanting inside the courtroom as soon as Rifaat finished reading the verdict.

"The people want to cleanse the judiciary," they chanted. Some raised banners that read: "God's verdict is execution."

Thousands of riot police cordoned off the building to prevent protesters and relatives of those slain during the uprising from getting too close. Hundreds stood outside, waving Egyptian flags and chanting slogans demanding "retribution." Some spread Mubarak's picture on the asphalt and walked over it.

In his verdict, Rifaat, who was presiding over his last court session before he retires, said Mubarak and el-Adly did not act to stop the killings during 18-day days of mass protests that were met by a deadly crackdown of security forces on unarmed demonstrators. More than 850 protesters were killed, most shot to death, in Cairo and other major cities.

Mubarak's verdict came just days after presidential elections have been boiled down to a June 16-17 contest between Mubarak's last prime minister, one-time protege Ahmed Shafiq, and Mubarak's top foe, a Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi.