CAIRO: The trial of Hosni Mubarak came to a halt Saturday as lawyers demanded a new panel of judges after highly anticipated testimony from Egypt’s military ruler, a former confidant of the ousted president.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawy gave his testimony under a total media blackout, with journalists barred from the court and forbidden to report any leaked details of what he told the court. Many believe Tantawy — who was Mubarak’s defense 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.
Mubarak is charged with complicity in the deaths of nearly 840 protesters in the crackdown against the uprising, which ended with his ouster on Feb. 11 and the handover of power to a military council headed by Tantawy. 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.
After Tantawy’s nearly hour-long testimony, lawyers representing the families of slain protesters demanded a new panel of judges, several lawyers who were present told The Associated Press. The demand appeared to be in connection with Tantawy’s statements, which were covered by the publication ban.
The lawyers spoke on condition of anonymity because of the closed-door session.
Their motion potentially upends the trial, which began Aug. 3 with many in the country riveted to the sight of their ailing former leader, who ruled for nearly 30 years, 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 favor of Mubarak.
The trial must now stop until a higher court rules on the lawyers’ demand. 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 Oct. 30 with testimony by chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the second-highest ranking official in the ruling military council, who was initially set to testify on Sunday.
The summoning of Tantawy was a dramatic move. It is unheard of for a head of state in Egypt — or the Arab world — 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.
Tantawy arrived under military escort early Saturday morning at the heavily guarded courtroom in Cairo for the nearly hour-long testimony. Mubarak was present in the courtroom during Tantawy’s testimony, lying on a gurney inside the defendants’ cage.
Many believe Tantawy, as a powerful insider, could provide critical insight into Mubarak’s alleged role in curbing the revolution by force as well as revelations about the former regime’s final days.
Many of the victims’ families and protesters had pinned much hope on Tantawy’s testimony. Tantawy 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. But Tantawy has also appealed for the public to "leave the past aside," seen as a sign he wants lenience for Mubarak.
"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.
As Tantawy testified, dozens of activists and families of slain protesters rallied outside the court, chanting, "Tantawy, tell the truth, is Mubarak a killer or not?" as they waved pictures of those killed in the uprising.
A group of pro-Mubarak supporters also rallied nearby, separated from the families by anti-riot police and army troops. After Tantawy’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.
Tantawy was initially set to testify on Sept. 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 Tantawy 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. Among those who testified was ex-intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president by Mubarak during the uprising.
Supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Hosni Mubarak (portraits) protest outside the police academy in Cairo where his trial resumed on Sept. 24. (AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki)