Judge Ahmed Refaat 311 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Egypt TV via Reuters TV)
The trial of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak got underway Wednesday with a theatrical opening session that would have seemed unimaginable just six months ago. Looking frail in his prison uniform, the 83-year-old was wheeled by stretcher into a metal defendants' cage in a make-shift courtroom at a Cairo police academy that once bore his name.
The ex-president's sons Alaa and Gamal are also on trial, as are former interior minister Habib El Adly and six of his staffers. They face charges including ordering the deaths of around 850 protesters, embezzling government funds and squandering money received in allegedly below-market gas transactions with Israel.
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Mubarak - a former air force chief in power for nearly three decades - is the first Arab leader to stand trial in person since popular uprisings swept the Middle East this year. If convicted, he could face execution by hanging.
Small-scale disturbances broke out in the lead-up to the trial, as frustrated protesters feared Mubarak would use the pretext of his failing health to remain in hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The ailing ex-statesman has been rumored to be suffering from a range of maladies from heart trouble and cancer to depression.
At a small pro-Mubarak rally, people chanted: "Oh Mubarak, hold your head high." Counter-chants of "Raise your voice, freedom will not die," rose from a nearby anti-Mubarak group. The state-run news agency said 53 people were hurt as demonstrators hurled stones at one another.
Once a government helicopter touched down at the venue, followed by an ambulance bound for the courtroom and finally the Mubaraks themselves, demonstrators settled into a stunned disbelief and gathered around giant television sets set up outside the facility.
Inside, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Dozens of lawyers representing "martyrs" killed in 18 days of protests jostled for position and a single portable microphone to ask Judge Ahmed Refaat to add various and sundry charges to the wrap sheet.
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The 1,000-capacity venue was half-empty, with a few hundred police and some Egyptian media. Foreign journalists were kept outside and forced to settle for a live Egyptian television feed broadcast to news audiences worldwide.
At one point in the proceedings attorney Hamed Seddik tried to convince the judge that Mubarak had died in 2004, and that the bedridden defendant was actually someone else.
"Mubarak passed away in 2004 and this defendant is another man," he said in comments translated by Al Ahram newspaper. "I demand to compare his DNA to that of Alaa and Gamal to reveal the truth … there is a conspiracy going on."
Seddik dismissed the trial as an "American-Zionist plot," prompting snickers from the assembled attorneys and guests. The lawyer has been pushing the theory for several years, provoking no small dose of ridicule from Egyptian media.
Lawyers representing some of the victims' families demanded Adly also face capital punishment. Others asked for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi - the general running the interim military government that replaced Mubarak - to testify as a witness along with former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Mubarak showed little emotion as the indictments were read. When called upon, he told the judge "Yes, sir, I'm here," then categorically denied the allegations. "I completely reject all charges against me," he said, waving his hand dismissively.
Clutching copies of the Quran, Alaa and Gamal followed their father in pleading not guilty. Alaa was a successful businessman with few direct links to politics, but his younger brother Gamal was widely reviled in Egypt for his perceived designation as the president's heir apparent.
The opening session lasted roughly two hours, after which Refaat declared the court adjourned until August 15, though Adly's trial was set to resume as soon as Thursday. For his part, Mubarak must remain in a Cairo hospital until his trial reconvenes.
One army officer said Mubarak's trial proved the military's good intentions. "This step unites the army and the people in building a better system, free of corruption," he said. The military had tried to distance itself from Mubarak, but has been unable to silence critics who accused it of seeking to shield its former commander by delaying his trial.
Egyptians, for the most part, welcomed the trial. "I'm so happy. I feel tomorrow will be better and that the next president knows what could happen to him if he goes against his people," Ahmed Amer, 30, a water utility employee, said outside the courtroom.
Ahmed Farghali, 24, among protesters who had gathered outside the Sharm el-Sheikh hospital before Mubarak was flown to Cairo, said he could not believe he would see the president locked in a cage. "It was beyond my wildest dreams," he said.
Across the Arab world, pro-democracy activists took heart at the sight of Mubarak in the dock.
"The trial no doubt inspires Syrians...to see those implicated in the bloodletting of Syrians and theft of the wealth of Syria put behind bars," said Imadeddin al-Rashid, an Islamic law professor who fled Syria.
In Yemen, protesters were glued to small television sets they had brought into the tents where they camped out in Sanaa. "The trial is a historic event for all Arabs, and Arab leaders will see it means that the age of escaping punishment has ended," said protester Abdullah Zeid.
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the first Arab leader to be ousted this year, was quickly tried and sentenced to jail in absentia and fled to Saudi Arabia.
In that conservative kingdom, a US ally that tolerates no dissent, a government adviser dismissed the trial as a masquerade. "This is a humiliating spectacle for everyone," he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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