CAIRO -- The judge in the murder retrial of Hosni Mubarak abruptly withdrew from the case Saturday, sending the matter to another court and delaying the deposed president’s fate over the actions of his police and army during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Wheeled into the defendant’s cage on a stretcher, Mubarak looked more robust than in past court sessions. He smiled and waved to supporters on hand at the trial for complicity in the killing of more than 850 protesters, a case that has become an irritating sideshow to the nation’s troubled democratic transition and deepening economic turmoil.
Judge Mustafa Hassan Abdullah said he felt “unease” at presiding over the trial and referred it to a Cairo appeals court. Lawyers representing the families of victims had petitioned to remove Abdullah, a Mubarak appointee, after he acquitted former officials of plotting a Feb. 2, 2011, attack on protesters by assailants riding horses and camels through Tahrir Square.
The toppled 84-year-old leader wore a white jumpsuit to the courthouse, his eyes hidden by sunglasses. He no longer appeared as the frail and drawn autocrat whose downfall captivated the Arab world. The trial’s delay and Mubarak’s smug demeanor raised questions over whether he would ever be punished for the bloody final days of his rule.
As the judge hurried from the bench and Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, both on trial for corruption, flanked their father in a wire-mesh cage, relatives of dead demonstrators chanted: “The people demand the execution of Mubarak!”
Hundreds of protesters died and many more were “injured and we must get their rights,” said Khaled Abu Bakr, a lawyer for relatives of victims. “We can’t have expectations about the final verdict now but we are monitoring the procedures and we know thing are moving in the right direction.”
The retrial was ordered in January after an appeals court overturned the convictions and life sentences for Mubarak, 84, and his interior minister, Habib Adli. The Islamist-led government of President Mohamed Morsi welcomed a second trial as a chance to win tougher sentences against Mubarak and other former top officials accused of billions of dollars worth of corruption.
Mubarak and Adli were charged with not stopping a deadly crackdown on demonstrators. No evidence was introduced linking Mubarak to the killings or being apprised of the extent of the violence. A government investigation ordered by Morsi and expected to be introduced at the new trial, however, suggests Mubarak followed the police brutality via a live television feed.
The retrial may agitate tensions between Morsi and the military. The investigation, part of which was purportedly leaked in recent days to the British newspaper The Guardian, implicates the army in killings, kidnappings and torture against protesters during and after the revolution. The army has denied such a role and warned it would not tolerate the accusations.
Morsi has not disclosed the investigation’s findings and has been careful not to anger the generals, who ruled the country for 17 months before he was elected in June. On Friday, Morsi appeared with the top army commander, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Sisi, and announced a number of military promotions.
In a statement broadcast the same day, the president said: “I will not ever allow slanders in any way, shape or form or ... any means to attack any member of the armed forces.”
Morsi has been blamed by the political opposition and human rights groups for not bringing the military, the country’s most revered institution, to account for its actions while it ruled. He has also been criticized for backing a new constitution that grants the army wide latitude and largely protects its budget and parallel economic empire from oversight.
Many Egyptians have been calling for a military coup amid anger over months of protests, inflation, gas shortages and the inability of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the government, to ease political divisions. The generals so far have shown no inclination to take back power but said they would not let the economy collapse.