CAIRO — The historic trial of Egypt’s former leader Hosni Mubarak came to an abrupt halt Saturday after a revolt by attorneys for the families of victims killed in the uprising against him, who declared that they had lost faith in the judges hearing the case.
The victims’ attorneys filed a motion asking for new judges after what they described as the court’s outrageous displays of bias during testimony Saturday by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Mubarak’s former defense chief and longtime confidant, Tantawi took over as head of the interim military council now ruling Egypt after the former president’s fall in February.
After the request for new judges, the court ordered the trial suspended until Oct. 30. But if the lawyers’ motion is granted by an appeals court — a ruling that could come as soon as Monday — weeks of testimony would need to start again from scratch.
The trial began Aug. 3 with shocking images of Mubarak being wheeled into court on a medical stretcher. Saturday’s dramatic twist came after Tantawi took the stand in a highly charged atmosphere, with Mubarak supporters and relatives of many of the 800 people killed during the uprising rallying outside the heavily guarded Cairo police academy, where the trial is taking place.
Tantawi appeared under a court-ordered media blackout, with journalists and cameras barred from the courtroom and with the details of his testimony shrouded in official secrecy. Although some lauded the court’s willingness to compel such a high-level official to testify — practically unheard of in Arab nations — there were clues Saturday that Tantawi’s words did not prove as damning to Mubarak as activists had hoped.
First, the morning proceedings were suddenly moved up by 90 minutes without informing the victims’ attorneys, who were kept outside by at least 45 minutes of security procedures during Tantawi’s hour and a half of testimony, according to Amir Salem, one of the lawyers who was in the courtroom. In contrast, defense attorneys were permitted to enter the courtroom immediately to hear Tantawi’s entire testimony, Salem said.
“The goal was to prevent lawyers [for the families] from attending,” Salem said.
Judges asked Tantawi 10 questions, but the two questions submitted by prosecutors were rejected as inappropriate. In addition, attorneys for victims’ families were not permitted to question Tantawi, Salem said.
Salem and other lawyers connected to the case declined to directly characterize Tantawi’s testimony, fearing that they might be held in contempt of court. But immediately after Tantawi’s testimony, they expressed their strong disapproval of the proceedings by filing their request for another panel of judges to hear the case.
“There were many reasons [for filing the motion]. It was partly because of Tantawi’s testimony and also because of the way the attorneys were treated when they attempted to get into the courtroom to listen to the field marshal’s statement,” Salem said. “The court’s way of treating us, in general, is just not good at all.”
He said all the victims’ attorneys “deliberated for two hours during the court recess, and then the majority decided that we must file a motion against the court’s behavior.”
The motion sets up the possibility that weeks of testimony, full of contradictory evidence and recanting witnesses, will have to be reheard by a new set of judges. But it also underscores the fundamental difficulties of trying to hold Mubarak accountable by bringing in members of his inner circle to testify while they remain the nation’s de facto rulers.
As such, they are being granted high levels of privacy and deference, which victims’ attorneys say is undermining the legitimacy of the trial.
Tantawi’s session was briefer than those of some other military officials. Some of them were grilled for hours. His appearance had been rescheduled after he indicated that an earlier date, Sept. 11, did not suit his schedule.
Reached by phone, Fareed al-Deeb, Mubarak's lead defense attorney, declined to discuss the proceedings. “I do not comment or speak with the press at all,” he said.
In addition to Mubarak, his former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, and a half-dozen top security officials are also facing complicity charges.
The trial was scheduled to resume Sunday with the testimony of Sami Anan, the ruling council’s deputy chief and the army’s chief of staff.
The secrecy surrounding Tantawi’s testimony appeared to feed growing skepticism about the trial of the relatives of those killed during the uprising against Mubarak.
“I’m frustrated because it was secret,” said Yasser Abdelal, whose brother Gharieb Abdelal was killed in January as the revolution against Mubarak grew. “We used to know from lawyers what’s going on inside, but now, lawyers are not allowed to speak to anyone, their telephones are monitored, and there is no broadcasting of information under penalty of punishment. We don’t know what happened, but I fear that Tantawi spoke for the service of Mubarak and said that he did not give the orders to kill.”
Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.