9:47am

Mon September 5, 2011
Middle East

First Witnesses Testify In Mubarak's Trial

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak returned to court Monday as the first witnesses took the stand in his trial on charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of more than 850 protesters during the uprising that ousted him.

Mubarak, who is in ill health, was once again wheeled in on a stretcher and placed in a metal defendants' cage inside a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo where the courtroom has been set up.

The hearing was the first session since the judge banned TV cameras from the courtroom, denying Egyptians a chance to follow the trial live. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from Cairo, said the judge banned broadcasts because he thought lawyers and activists were creating a spectacle as they jockeyed for position in front of the cameras. But she said the official reason given was to protect the identity and testimony of witnesses.

Relatives of those killed during the 18-day revolt that toppled the 83-year-old Mubarak on Feb. 11 massed outside the courtroom, angry that they could not witness the proceedings.

"When they saw that there wasn't going to be a big screen with a broadcast, they were pushing to get inside and were pushed back by riot police," Nelson said. "Then just a short while ago, there was a very violent scuffle between pro-Mubarak forces and these families. Rocks were flying."

She said an NPR staffer saw four ambulances taking people away. TV footage also showed metal barricades being thrown, while hundreds of anti-riot police chased young men in the streets.

Ramadan Ahmed Abdou, the father of a slain protester, said he applied for permission to attend the session and had been told he could pick up the permit Monday morning before the trial. But when he arrived, he was told there was no permit for him.

"People are very frustrated," he told The Associated Press. "We said OK when the judge decided to ban the broadcast of the trial, but we want to see it ourselves," he said.

Crowds held posters of slain protesters and shouted, "To die like them or to get their rights." One held a hangman's noose and demanded Mubarak's execution. Some set fire to pictures of Mubarak, while chanting, "The people want to execute the butcher."

Nearby, about 50 Mubarak supporters in a counterdemonstration cried out, "Why humiliate the president who protected us?"

Four key witnesses were expected to take the stand for the prosecution Monday, including the former head of operations for the security forces that were on the front line killing protesters.

"He is accused, in separate charges, of having destroyed the phone tapes and the official documents that actually gave the order," Nelson said. "So he's expected to testify with regard to whether the order came down from the top or whether perhaps it was just from the interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who is also on trial on these charges."

The question of who gave the shoot-to-kill order will determine whether Mubarak could get the death penalty if convicted.

"This the beginning of the real trial," said Khaled Abu Bakr, a lawyer representing families of slain protesters. Previous sessions in the trial that began Aug. 3 were taken up largely by procedural matters.

Attorneys have filed motions to summon more than 1,000 witnesses in the trial, including Hussein Tantawi, the head of the council of generals that took over control of the country after Mubarak's fall. Tantawi was also Mubarak's defense minister.

Mubarak's sons, who face the same corruption charges as their father, were also to appear at Monday's session at the heavily fortified police academy.

Nelson said the trial could last as long as a year if history is any precedent. She pointed to the trial of Egyptian police officers accused in the death of a young businessman, Khaled Said, that became a rallying point against police brutality.

"There are two officers accused of beating him to death in Alexandria," Nelson said, "and those police officers have been on trial now for a year and still nothing has happened with regard to that case."

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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