The entire team of lawyers defending the 24 Moslems on trial for the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat resigned today in a dispute over what the lawyers said were the military court's impediments to their conduct of the trial.
The court, in turn, fined the lawyers $60 each for allegedly violating military judicial procedures and dismissed them from the case.
The immediate effect of the mass resignation was to postpone the trial at least until Jan. 5. The long-term consequences could be much more serious, however, depending upon whether the court can quickly find other lawyers to take their place.
Should the government prove unable to find other lawyers to take up the defense of the 24 accused assassins, the trial could turn out to be an acute political embarrassment.
Speaking on behalf of 35 lawyers, Abdel Halim Ramadan told a news conference at his office that the defense team was resigning to protest "the suspension of its legal rights preventing it from carrying out its duty."
Their chief complaints, Ramadan said, was the refusal of the three-man Egyptian military court to allow the appearance of any of the witnesses they wanted to call on behalf of the defendants.
He also decried the court's decision to close the proceedings to the public and the press and said the defense was demanding a public trial as one of its conditions for returning.
"The defense team regards these conditions as negating the rule that the accused are innocent until proven guilty," Ramadan said. "We cannot do our good work in the darkness of this atmosphere of the trial."
Ramadan said a delegation of lawyers went to the office of President Hosni Mubarak today to explain why they had resigned and ask for a meeting with him to discuss their grievances. So far, they have received no reply, he said.
Ramadan said that "no Egyptian lawyer at all" would agree now to take part in the trial because of the conditions being imposed upon the defense.
Other sources here familar with the Egyptian system of justice, notably the state-dominated bar association, said it still might be possible for the government to find replacements, although possibly under duress.
Ramadan said the defendants would reject other lawyers appointed by the court. Under Egyptian law, however, a defendant has the right to refuse a court-appointed lawyer twice, then must accept the designated attorney.
In any case, the latest turn of events appears to have dashed the government hopes for a speedy and quiet trial of the four men allegedly directly involved in Sadat's assassination during a military parade Oct. 6 and of 20 alleged accomplices.
The witnesses the defense lawyers sought to present included top Egyptian officials and other well-known national figures, such as President Mubarak; the defense minister, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Abdul Halim Abu Ghazala; the wife of the slain president, Jihan Sadat; former foreign minister Ismail Fahmi and several opposition leaders.
The defense has also asked several religious leaders to appear, most recently Sheik Salah Abu Ismail, head of the National Assembly's religious affairs committee and its grand rector. Ramadan said Sheik Ismail had been refused entry into the military barracks on the outskirts of Cairo where the trial is being held.
He said the defense wanted to ask the sheik whether the Shari-a, the Moslem religious law, was the basis of Egyptian law, as claimed by the defendants.
Ramadan refused to say why the lawyers wanted Sadat's widow or the other requested witnesses to appear before the court, saying the nature of their defense was "secret."
Earlier, another defense lawyer, Ragai Atiya, said the defense intended to turn the proceedings into a political trial of Sadat and his policies and intended to argue that there was reason for his assassination on religious and political grounds.
Presumably, the government refusal of defense requests is to prevent that kind of trial from taking place.