Lawyers demand new judges for Mubarak trial

After Egypt's military ruler testifies under a media blackout, lawyers submit motion for a new panel of judges.

    Pro-and anti-Mubarak supporters rallied outside the trial, separated by riot police and army troops [REUTERS]

    Lawyers representing the families of slain Egyptian protesters have demanded a new panel of judges for the trial of Hosni Mubarak, shortly after Egypt's military ruler gave his testimony under a total media blackout.

    The trial of the ousted president was halted on Saturday after highly anticipated testimony from Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, with journalists barred from the court and forbidden to report any leaked details of what he told the court.

    After his nearly hour-long testimony, lawyers representing the families of slain protesters submitted a motion demanding a new panel of judges, several lawyers who were present told The Associated Press.

    The demand appeared to be in connection with Tantawi's statements, which were covered by the publication ban.

    Many believe Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defence minister for two decades, can be crucial in addressing the key question of whether Mubarak ordered lethal force used against protesters during the 18-day uprising against his rule.

    "He was inside the operation room, behind the closed doors all during the days of the revolution. He knows all the secrets," said Gomaa Ali, a lawyer representing the family of 17-year-old slain protester Mohammed Abdel-Gawad.

    Death penalty

    Mubarak is charged with complicity in the deaths of nearly 840 protesters in the crackdown against the uprising, which ended with him stepping down on February 11 and handing over power to a military council headed by Tantawi.

    Mubarak could face the death penalty if convicted, but so far most testimony, including from police officers, has distanced Mubarak from any orders to shoot at protesters.

    Among those who testified was ex-spy chief Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice-president by Mubarak during the uprising.

    The lawyers' motion potentially upends the trial, which began on August 3 with many in the country riveted to the sight of their ailing former leader lying in a hospital gurney inside the courtroom cage where defendants traditionally sit during trials in Egypt.

    Since then, the trial has become complicated, with the judge halting live broadcasts of the sessions and a series of police officer witnesses whose testimonies largely came in favour of Mubarak.

    The trial must now stop until a higher court rules on the lawyers' demand.

    High-profile testimonies

    A decision on the request is expected on Monday. If the higher court accepts the motion, the trial will have to restart from the beginning with new judges.

    If the higher court rules against the lawyers' motion, the current trial will resume on October 30 with testimony by chief of staff Lieutenant-General Sami Hafez Anan, the second-highest ranking official in the ruling military council, who was initially set to testify on Sunday.

    The summoning of Tantawi was a dramatic move. It is unheard of for a head of state in Egypt to be called to give testimony in a court, and it is perhaps even more startling for the head of Egypt's deeply secretive and powerful military to take the stand.

    Tantawi arrived under military escort early on Saturday morning at the heavily guarded courtroom in Cairo for the nearly hour-long testimony.

    Mubarak was present in the courtroom during Tantawi's testimony, lying on a gurney inside the defendants' cage.

    Many of the victims' families and protesters had pinned much hope on Tantawi's testimony.

    Tantawi has said in earlier public comments that the military refused to fire on protesters, a sign many read as meaning he refused orders to do so from his commander in chief.

    As Tantawi testified, dozens of activists and families of slain protesters rallied outside the court, chanting, "Tantawi, tell the truth, is Mubarak a killer or not?" as they waved pictures of those killed in the uprising.

    Pro-Mubarak support

    A group of pro-Mubarak supporters also rallied nearby, separated from the families by anti-riot police and army troops. After Tantawi's testimony, a Mubarak supporter ululated and others cheered, in apparent celebration.

    Also on trial with Mubarak and facing the same charges are his former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and six senior former security officials. Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, also face corruption charges.

    Tantawi was initially set to testify on September 11, but failed to attend the session citing a busy schedule and instead offering to submit written testimony.

    The development at the time raised suspicions of hesitation by Mubarak's former allies to face him in court and possibly reveal embarrassing secrets.

    But the judge summoned Tantawi again and he agreed to appear at Saturday's hearing.

    The trial depends heavily on accounts of members of the former president's inner circle who testified last week under similar media blackouts.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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