Ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s trial was suspended twice Monday amid chants by the defendants against the judge and after he refused to recognize the court’s legitimacy or don a prison uniform.
The disruption of the first session spotlighted the nation’s rifts, as the military-backed interim government seeks to push ahead with a transition to democracy road map against a backdrop of violence and protests over what Morsi’s backers say was a coup.
Clashes over the past couple of months have left more than 1,000 dead, and the Muslim Brotherhood that fielded Morsi for office facing its toughest crackdown in decades.
Morsi, who has not been seen in public since his July 3 ouster, told the judge he remained president and refused to trade civilian clothing for a white uniforms worn by defendants in court, according to TV channels reporting from the closed proceedings.
On trial with Morsi are 14 senior Muslim Brotherhood members, and defendants had interrupted the session with chants questioning the court’s legitimacy.
“I am the legitimate president of the country,” Morsi told the judge according to the state-run Ahram Gate news website. “I reject that Egyptian judiciary provides cover for the criminal military coup.”
Morsi was flown by helicopter from an undisclosed location to the heavily secured court in a police academy in Cairo’s outskirts where toppled predecessor Hosni Mubarak is also being re-tried, state media reported. If convicted, he could face the death penalty, the state-run Ahram newspaper’s website reported.
The passions inflamed by both Morsi’s presidency and his removal by the military flared ahead of the trial, which the army-backed government may try to use to legitimize his ouster. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers, who fielded him for office, say the trial is politically tinged.
“The interim authorities — the army and the interim government — are counting on Morsi’s trial to seem more legitimate” and to “further demonize the image of Morsi’s administration,” said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Putting Mohammed Morsi in a dock in a courtroom completely defies the idea that this man may still be the president.”
A massive security presence was mobilized for the trial, with 20,000 personnel deployed in Cairo and across the nation. The venue was shifted to the police academy at the last minute in deference to security concerns.
The area was largely sealed off, and only people with special permits were allowed to approach the compound. Checkpoints were set up on the highway alongside the facility and military armored personnel carriers backed up police and other security forces outside.
Outside the barriers, several dozen Morsi backers chanted against the military and Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi, who had announced the Islamist’s ouster and has risen from relative obscurity to achieve star status in Egyptian politics.
Some flashed a four-finger salute representing the Rabaa al- Adawiya square in Cairo, where hundreds of Morsi backers were killed by security forces in August.
Supporters contend that Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president was toppled in a coup. The government and its military backers say his ouster was an expression of the people’s will after days of protests against him. Opponents accused him of using his office to promote an Islamist agenda at the expense of the nation’s welfare.
Morsi, in a leaked video aired on the website of the Al- Watan newspaper, described his ouster as a “crime in every way.” The video showed the Islamist in a track suit and appearing in good health, speaking off camera to unidentified visitors. The newspaper said it blurred the background and other images to keep his location secret.
“The president’s trial is illegitimate,” said Abdullah Ragab, a 19-year-old student, outside the police academy. “This is a coup against the legitimate president, he said.
In Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, supporters of the military gathered for their own rally backing al-Seesi, al- Hayat television reported.
Morsi’s overthrow didn’t not end the turmoil that characterized the last days of his administration, and the already divided country became even more polarized amid the government’s crackdown on Islamist leaders.
The political strife has complicated the interim government’s declared commitment to hold democratic elections next year. In Cairo Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry urged the country’s officials to fulfill that promise.
Kerry, the highest-level American visitor to Egypt since Morsi’s overthrow, also underscored the importance of reviving the Egyptian economy, which has struggled to lure back tourists and investors who first fled amid the turmoil surrounding Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.
INCITEMENT TO KILL
The charges date back to violence that erupted during protests against Morsi outside the Ittihadiya palace last year. Some of the defendants are accused of holding 60 people hostage and torturing them. Morsi is charged with incitement that led to the killings of three people.
Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, who says she was at the palace, described it as “one of the darkest days of my life.”
“Morsi killed innocent people, silenced the voice of opposition just like any dictator,” said the architect, who voted for Morsi before becoming disillusioned by his policies. “Morsi and his group gave us no reason to sympathize with them.”
Morsi loyalists and others have questioned whether he will be given a fair trial. The judicial system was repeatedly at loggerheads with him during his year in office, with the tension linked in no small part to a constitutional decree that shielded his decisions from judicial oversight. His Islamist backers claim court benches are stacked against them.
“The former president is being tried on criminal charges rather than political ones” and he “enjoys his full legal rights,” the government said in a statement.
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