CAIRO — Former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak said Wednesday that he did not order the killing of protesters during the recent uprising that ousted him, speaking at the start of an epic trial that could further rock Egypt’s turbulent transition to democracy.
Mubarak’s attorney suggested that the leader of Egypt’s ruling military council, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, was complicit in the crackdown on protesters during most of the 18-day uprising early this year and said he intended to call the general to the stand.
The first day of the ousted president’s trial transfixed Egyptians across the country as they watched a man who had once commanded respect and fear lying on a hospital gurney inside a metal cage installed in a makeshift courtroom. It was also a moment that exposed the deep divisions among Egyptians on whether to try the autocrat of almost 30 years, who also faces graft charges, and publicly chastise him.
After the pleas were entered and the lawyers made their requests of the judges, the trial was adjourned.
On Wednesday morning, nearly six months after he was forced from power, Mubarak pleaded not guilty in a tremulous voice.
“All of these charges I completely deny,” he said after the list was read.
His two sons, Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, hovered over him, blocking the view of their father from television cameras and the court. Gamal Mubarak twice kissed his father and frequently leaned in to confer with him as his brother stood erect, holding the Koran in his hand.
Hosni Mubarak is being tried alongside his sons, who are charged with corruption. They also denied culpability. Former interior minister Habib al-Adli is also being tried on allegations that he ordered the killing of protesters, as are his deputies. Adli and Mubarak could be sentenced to death if convicted in the slaying of demonstrators.
In adjourning the Mubaraks’ trial until Aug. 15, Ahmed Refaat, the judge, said he needed time to review the motions filed by the defense and attorneys for relatives of slain protesters.
The judge said the elder Mubarak would be held at a nearby hospital until his trial resumes. Adli is due to return to court Thursday.
Mubarak’s attorney, Farid el-Deeb, said Tantawi took charge of security operations Jan. 28. That was the day Egyptian authorities deployed the army on the streets of Cairo to control swelling protests that had overwhelmed riot police squads. Unarmed protesters were shot and beaten by security forces. Nearly 900 people were killed during the uprising.
Deeb made it clear that the defense team intended to make the trial a protracted and grueling affair, with plans to call 1,631 witnesses. He also called for a reevaluation of Hosni Mubarak’s health.
Deeb’s effort to shift responsibility for the crackdown to the army — and away from Mubarak — could force the interim military rulers to reassess the ex-president’s trial if it appeared likely to implicate them in government abuses.
Tensions have been escalating between the interim leaders and elements of the public. Many Egyptians accuse the generals of failing to purge the government of Mubarak loyalists and have denounced the ongoing trials of civilians in military tribunals. The rulers have also, at times, used force to break up demonstrations — most recently in Tahrir Square on Monday, when more than 100 people were arrested.
On Wednesday, some of those public doubts were put to rest when the military council made good on its pledge to bring Mubarak to trial. But a drawn-out proceeding could revive the mistrust, given the popular pressure for a speedy conviction.
The image of Mubarak in a white tracksuit, behind bars, was striking, but also divisive. Outside the police academy building where the trial was being held, Mubarak supporters threw rocks at demonstrators hailing the proceeding. When anti-Mubarak demonstrators responded by throwing rocks and trying to burn posters and portraits praising the ousted leader, riot police broke up the crowds. At least 54 people were injured.
Demonstrators erupted into cheers when they saw, on a screen erected outside the police academy, Mubarak being wheeled into the courtroom. Some noted that he looked alert and haughty, wagging his finger when he pleaded not guilty. He had not been seen in public since he delivered a defiant speech Feb. 10, in which he vowed that he would not resign. A day later, he hastily traveled to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh after the country’s military chiefs forced him to step down.
The former leader has been hospitalized in Sharm el-Sheikh for months. Mubarak’s attorney has said that the 83-year-old is too ill to be put on trial, but Egypt’s health minister certified in recent days that the ousted president is fit enough for the proceedings.
Some people attending the trial Wednesday said they felt sorry for the bedridden Mubarak.
“He was our president for 30 years, and I don’t like to see him like this. It’s insulting,” said Zurin Fadel, 29. “At least he has courage. He could have escaped if he wanted . . . but he is here.”
Earlier, the judge heard from several attorneys for relatives of slain demonstrators. The lawyers complained that many relatives had not been allowed inside the courtroom.
One of the few allowed inside, Mustafa Morsi, sighed with satisfaction when he saw the man he blamed for his son’s death behind bars. His son Mohammed, 22, was fatally shot Jan. 28.
“I feel relief now. The top suspect is in,” Morsi said. His arm was in a sling and his head wounded from clashes with the military when troops evicted people from Tahrir Square on Monday. This was the first step to justice, he said. “May God burn his heart.”
Outside, Mubarak supporters chanted, “We are here because we love our father. No matter what you do, we’re his children, and we’ll protect him.”
A private business owner, Dania Saleh, rolled up in a BMW before the trial and passed out T-shirts that read, “I’m Egyptian, and I reject the trial of the leader of the nation.”
“He is our president, and all the people will come here today,” she said, her heart-shaped diamond earrings sparkling.
But most Egyptians seemed enthralled by the spectacle of the former president in a cage. Some replaced their Facebook profile photo with a screen grab of Mubarak lying on the gurney. Others voiced indignation that the trial would take longer than a day. His crimes were clear, they said. They pointed to his dyed jet-black hair and what they described as his smug manner, his arms often crossed behind his head, as evidence that his health was fine.
“He looks perfectly healthy. They need to finish this. He killed so many people,” said Hussein Mustapha, 30, a waiter in central Cairo.
A lawyer representing 32 families of slain protesters called Mubarak’s entrance a stunt.
“He flew to Sharm el-Sheikh like an eagle, and now he’s sick?,” Fathy Abo el-Hassan said. “This is a legal trick.”
As the families waited outside the academy, the courtroom was by no means full. Police conscripts in civilian clothes dotted the rows. By the end of the day, as Mubarak was wheeled away, most of them had fallen asleep.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.