The opening day of the trial of 73 men accused of involvement in an Egyptian football stampede, which left more than 70 dead, has been marked with chaos and had to be briefly adjourned.
Dozens of defendants began shouting and pleaded “not guilty”, as the prosecutor read out charges on Tuesday in the capital, Cairo.
Some chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), denying the charges of premeditated murder and possession of weapons.
“We will die like them, or bring them justice,” the defendants cried, denying any role in the stadium stampede in Port Said on February 1 that was the deadliest sporting tragedy in Egyptian history.
Judge Abdel Magid Mahmoud walked out as the defendants jumped on benches in the court cage and waved their fists at the bench.
The proceedings resumed a short while later, but adjourned until May 5 to allow time for prosecutors to call witnesses.
Amid chaotic scenes aired live on state television, defendants dressed in white climbed on benches inside the cage, pointing to security officials on trial in the same case and blaming them for Egypt’s worst football disaster.
One of the accused shouted that he had been brought in as a witness in the case but was shocked to find out that he had been charged along with the rest.
The clashes in the Suez Canal city between fans of home side Al-Masry and Cairo’s Al-Ahly erupted at the final whistle.
Al-Masry fans invaded the pitch after their team beat the visitors 3-1, throwing rocks, bottles and fireworks at Al-Ahly supporters, causing chaos and panic as players and fans fled in all directions.
It was one of the deadliest incidents in football history, and came amid charges from witnesses that security forces did little to prevent the rioting.
The Port Said stadium deaths also sparked days of violent protests in Cairo, in which another 16 people were killed.
The prosecutor said the accused, many of whom are Al-Masry supporters, started the violence that killed the Al-Ahly fans “in revenge for prior differences between them, and in a show of force”.
Many Egyptians believe the football riot was orchestrated either by the police or by supporters of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, a reflection of the distrust felt towards the country’s ruling military.