The judges presiding over the trial of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood leaders have stepped down from the proceedings, citing "uneasiness" over the trial as the defence lawyers said the panel had come under pressure to hold the trial inside a prison.
Judge Mohammed el-Qarmouti from the three-judge panel at the Cairo Criminal Court announced the decision to step down on Tuesday, just before the second session in the trial was to convene.
"We step down in both cases and we are sending the cases back to the head of the appeal court. The head of the appeal court will assign these cases to another court. Meanwhile, the defendants remain imprisoned," el-Qarmouti said.
The move forces the trial of 35 Brotherhood figures, including the group's top leader Mohammed Badie, to start all over again, though Tuesday was only its second session.
The case is the first in what is likely to be a series of trials of Brotherhood members, including ousted President Mohammed Morsi whose trial on charges of inciting the killing of protesters begins on November 4.
But Badie and the other defendants did not appear, apparently for security reasons, for fear their presence would spark protests by supporters outside. Holding the trial in a prison would presumably enable tighter security.
"The decision of stepping down is due to the fact that the defendants were not present. Especially, after the judge had promised the defence panel their (defendants') presence. But the ministry of the interior did not bring the defendants to court," said defence counsel spokesman Mohamed Eldamaty.
The defendants include six senior leaders, including Badie and his deputy Khairat el-Shater, the group's powerful financier and four other Brotherhood figures. They are on trial on charges of incitement, stemming from June 30 clashes that left nine dead when Brotherhood members opened fire on protesters storming their Cairo headquarters.
The other 29 are low-level Brotherhood members.
|The decision to step down is due to the fact that the defendants were not allowed to be present in the trial, said Mohamed Eldamaty of the Muslim Brotherhood's defence team [EPA]
Rejecting court's authority
The trial is part of an extensive crackdown on Morsi's group and its supporters since the military removed Egypt's first freely elected president from office on July 3 following widespread protests against him.
Since then, Morsi has been held incommunicado and he is due to stand first trial next month for charges of inciting murder and violence that led to killings of protesters in front of the presidential palace in December.
On Monday the Anti-Coup Alliance which supports Morsi rejected the authority of the court that is due to try him.
"No lawyers will be defending president Mohamed Morsi, neither Egyptians nor foreigners, because the president does not recognise the trial or any action and processes that result from the coup," the alliance, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a statement.
The group said a team of Egyptian lawyers would be attending the trial with Morsi, but only "to observe proceedings, not to defend him."
It said its statement was prompted by false reports in pro-military media outlets, saying the Muslim Brotherhood had appointed lawyers from Turkey and Qatar to represent Morsi.
The alliance has called for mass protests on the day of the trial, raising fears of further violence in the deeply polarised country.