Start of Mubarak trial sets off debate, clashes and bizarre requests

The sight of Hosni Mubarak lying helplessly in bed facing charges was a stunning moment for Egyptians. Beyond Egypt, it was a powerful cautionary tale for a region more accustomed to patriarchal rulers than the rule of the people.

CAIRO // "I am here, sir," was Hosni Mubarak's stunningly humble response when judge Ahmed Rifaat called out his name at the start of the former Egyptian leader's trial.

"I entirely deny all these accusations," was his answer when asked about the charges he faces - corruption and ordering the use of deadly force against protesters during the uprising that toppled him in February.

Mr Mubarak, bed-ridden in a black-and-gray metal and wire cage, did not speak again at Wednesday's proceeding. Still, there was enough symbolism and drama on the day the historic trial began to make up for Mr Mubarak's scarcity of spoken words.

The sight of Mr Mubarak lying helplessly in bed facing charges that carry the death penalty was a stunning moment for Egyptians, more than half of whom knew no president other than him. For his critics, it was a day they could have only dreamt of six months ago, a president who ruled unchallenged for nearly 30 years finally brought to justice. Beyond Egypt, it was a powerful cautionary tale for a region more accustomed to patriarchal rulers than the rule of the people.

The day's events matched the symbolism - violent clashes outside the complex housing the makeshift court between Mr Mubarak's supporters and critics, desperate attempts by Mr Mubarak's two sons and co-defendants to shield their father from the television cameras and the unruly and bizarre behaviour of some of the lawyers seeking damages for the families of those 850 killed during the uprising.

The hearing, held at a lecture hall in the national police academy in Cairo, began at 10am but the day's events began nearly five hours earlier with a noisy protest by some 50 Mubarak supporters.

"Our leader will never die," they shouted. "We will demolish and burn the prison if they convict Mubarak." Later, supporters of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak arrived outside the academy and clashes erupted.

The giant screen showing the live broadcast of the trial was smashed in the clashes, which left scores wounded. At the end, riot police used electrified batons to disperse them.

Inside the lecture hall, several hundred security officers were spread out across the room, the size of 2 basketball courts.

The hall, with a concrete floor and wood-panelled walls, had seven giant television screens showing the proceedings, broadcast live by state Egyptian television.

There were about 100 black-robed lawyers.

Beside Mr Mubarak and his two sons - one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa - was former interior minister Habib el-Adly, in the blue prison suit set aside for convicts, and six of his top aides sat. Gamal and Alaa, in white prison suits, defiantly stood throughout the four-hour hearing. They often whispered to each other and spoke to their father, on the hospital trolley behind them, from time to time.

Like their father, they too denied all charges.

Tension between the few dozen journalists and the policemen in charge of security at the trial boiled over into heated arguments on several occasions.

In many ways, the arguments mirrored the hostility between the media and the police after many years in which the country's security forces were blamed for the worst human-rights abuses during Mr Mubarak's rule and their use of excessive force in the early days of the January 25-February 11 uprising.

Surprisingly, there were only a few bursts of rhetoric, with one female lawyer representing a victim's family shouting "long live the revolution" when the defendants entered their cage. Another lawyer, also for a victim's family, described the defendants as murderers with no conscience.

Lawyers for the victims' families relentlessly pushed and shoved each other to reach the microphones to speak to the judge, who struggled to maintain order.

Many attempted to approach the bench only to be told off by the judge.

The day's dose of bizarre came from one defence lawyer who asked the judge to run a DNA test on Mr Mubarak.

Why? Because Hosni Mubarak, former president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, commander of the Egyptian Air Force and decorated war hero, died in 2004.

The man in the cage? His double.

Published: August 7, 2011 04:00 AM


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