|Following a judge’s ruling, Egyptians will no longer be able to watch their former leader’s trial on live television [AFP]|
Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appeared in court for the second session of his historic trial on Monday, giving citizens another live television glimpse – and perhaps the last – into the emotional legal proceedings meant to bring the ailing former leader to account.
For the second time, pro- and anti-Mubarak crowds chanted and fought in the streets outside Cairo’s Police Academy, at times throwing rocks at one another and causing at least 34 injuries, according to the Interior Ministry.
Inside the recently assembled courtroom, dozens of lawyers again massed at the bar, shouting their demands at the judges and one another, at times growing so heated in their arguments that some were seen physically restraining their colleagues.
But by the end of the roughly three-hour session, presiding Judge Ahmed Rifaat had established firm control.
Lawyers were forced to take their seats and submit their requests in writing, and Rifaat adjourned the case until September 5, after issuing a terse series of 10 decisions on how the trial would proceed.
Two of his orders prompted applause from lawyers representing injured protesters and relatives of those killed during the uprising, though one may yet cause more unrest.
First, Rifaat officially combined the trial of Mubarak and his sons with the case of ex-interior minister Habib el-Adly and six former security chiefs, a victory for plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Next, the judge banned further broadcast of the proceedings, prompting more applause from the lawyers but anger among activists commenting on Twitter, though whether that anger would resonate on the streets remained unclear.
Online criticism of Rifaat’s decision to ban television cameras from the courtroom came swiftly but was tempered by the argument that it was legally necessary, and by a desire to halt street clashes and restore order to a courtroom that has at times appeared chaotic and even embarrassing, observers said.
Viewers of the private satellite channel ONtv, which has covered the trial closely, sent in text messages after Rifaat’s decision calling for protesters to return to Tahrir Square, journalist Sarah Carr wrote on Twitter.
Mostafa Sheshtawy, a blogger, wrote that the decision to cut off the broadcast seemed meant to shield prominent figures, such as former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi, from being seen on live television implicating Mubarak and others in criminality.
Tantawi now chairs the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed ultimate control over Egyptian political affairs after Mubarak stepped down on February 11.
But that initial dismay shifted to sympathy toward Rifaat’s decision, and lawyers argued that the television ban was legally proper.
Gamal Eid, the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information – who also represents plaintiffs in the trial – wrote that Rifaat had halted the broadcasts to prevent witnesses from hearing others testify, which would risk tainting their own statements.
Eid and others argued that taking television cameras out of the courtroom did not mean the trial was no longer open, since lawyers and journalists would still be allowed inside.
“I guess we move on … and work on ensuring that journalists [are] allowed to attend,” wrote Hoda Osman, a freelance journalist who was outside the courtroom on Monday.
Aside from the television ban, the proceedings on Monday were largely uneventful.
That may be thanks in large part to Rifaat, who refused to allow lawyers to go through a lenghty list of complaints and demands, as he did at the first session.
Rifaat said he had hoped to hold daily sessions, but that the disorder and continual demands by lawyers had made that impossible. At one point, he called their behaviour “intolerable”.
After the crowd finally took their seats, Rifaat first unsealed several pieces of evidence – one CD and four DVDs, as well as a flash drive – but did not say what was on them. One possibility was television footage of the protests, which lawyers have asked to see.
Then, he allowed only two lawyers to speak: Sameh Ashour for the plaintiffs and Farid el-Deeb for the Mubaraks. He accepted written requests from other plaintiffs lawyers.
Ashour asked that the case against Mubarak, which includes a murder conspiracy charge that could involve the death penalty, be separated from the case against his sons Gamal and Alaa, who face only corruption charges related to the illegal acquisition of property. Rifaat did not rule on Ashour’s request.
Deeb’s requests seemed aimed at prolonging the trial.
He claimed that the contents of the flash drive could be faked and asked for a copy, said he wanted the names and “particulars” of any people transported by ambulance during the protests, requested copies of interrogation notes related to the corruption charges, and then asked that the trial be adjourned long enough for defence lawyers to review the evidence.
Rifaat granted some of Deeb’s requests, ordering that the defence be provided with interrogation transcripts and information about those treated by ambulances. He also allowed 23 days before the next hearing for defence and plaintiffs attorneys to review the evidence.
Ashraf Khalil, a journalist who has written about the uprising for Foreign Policy and Rolling Stone, told Al Jazeera he was disappointed that Rifaat had banned television cameras but thought it might help restore order, both inside and outside the courtroom.
“[The trial] has gone according to normal procedure so far, the difference is just this crowd of lawyers jostling for the microphone, which looks terrible in front of the world and cannot be helping the court,” he said, adding that shutting down the broadcast also “reduces the likelihood that every one of these sessions is going to become one a divisive mob scene outside the academy”.
Putting Mubarak and his associates on trial was one of the revolution’s primary demands, so it was no surprise that the first session of the trial was reportedly widely viewed, at least in Cairo. Residents of the capital were said to have left (or ignored) their work to watch, and families set up television sets outside shops for public viewings.
Some people will likely be upset that they can no longer view one of the protesters’ chief accomplishments live on television, Khalil said, but the more important issue now is whether Rifaat allows journalists to continue attending.
“If they ban reporters, or declare sections of the testimony to be off the record, or pull some stunt like making reporters leave the room, for example if Field Marshal Tantawi testifies, they are always going to be dancing on the edge of people thinking, ‘this is a fix, this is a conspiracy’,” he said.