The retrial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was aborted on Saturday when the presiding judge withdrew from the case and referred it to another court, causing an indefinite delay that sparked anger in the courtroom.
Lawyers said that while the transfer would give prosecutors more time to draw on new evidence in an unpublished fact-finding commission's report into the repression, it could delay the case by months, increasing the risk that Mubarak, 84, may never be finally convicted and sentenced.
"Egypt cannot close the door on the former regime until there is justice for the martyrs of our revolution," said Mohamed Rashwan, a prosecution attorney and member of the Egyptian Lawyers' Union, which had petitioned to have the judge removed from the case. Two years had passed since Mubarak's fall and justice was taking too long, Rashwan said.
"The people demand the execution of Mubarak!" frustrated relatives of demonstrators killed in the 2011 uprising that overthrew him chanted in court after presiding Judge Mustafa Hassan Abdullah announced the decision at the opening session.
Outside the heavily guarded compound, pro-Mubarak demonstrators outnumbered opponents. The two small groups were kept well apart by a police cordon and there were no incidents.
Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for almost 30 years before being toppled by 18 days of Arab Spring pro-democracy unrest, waved and smiled to supporters from the defendants' cage in the courtroom before the brief hearing began.
He was flown by helicopter from a military hospital where he has been detained to the police academy used as a courthouse, and wheeled from an ambulance into the building lying on a hospital trolley wearing a white tracksuit.
Mubarak, former interior minister Habib al-Adli and four top aides face a retrial for complicity in the murder of more than 800 protesters after the highest appeals court accepted appeals by both the defense and the prosecution in January. Two other senior interior ministry officials face lesser charges.
The presiding judge was appointed under Mubarak and so were most of the current judiciary, a factor that has complicated transitional justice in Egypt. The judge said he had decided to refer the case to the Cairo appeals court as he felt "unease" in reviewing the case. He did not explain his decision further.
He had previously acquitted top former Mubarak era officials of orchestrating violence when thugs riding camels attacked pro-democracy activists in Cairo's central Tahrir Square.
"We ask for the harshest possible sentence on Mubarak due to the cruel crimes he committed against the protesters, but we are happy with the judge's decision to withdraw as we had worries about him given his ruling (on) the camel attack case," said Mohamed Abdel Wahab, a lawyer for the victims. His comment reflected a widespread mixture of relief and frustration.
It was the first time Mubarak, who wore gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses in court, had been seen in public since he and Adli were convicted last June on grounds of failing to stop the killing, rather than actually ordering it.
Mubarak's two sons, Alaa and Gamal, were also in court to be retried on separate charges of financial corruption.
Propped up on a gurney in a cage with the other defendants, he looked fitter and more relaxed than on previous appearances in the dock, holding animated conversations with his son Gamal, and occasionally smiling and waving to people in the courtroom.
Judge Mahmoud el-Hafnawy of the prosecutor general's office ordered an urgent medical report on the former president to determine whether he was now fit enough to be sent to prison.
Prosecutors accuse Mubarak of giving orders to Adli to open fire with live ammunition against protesters to suppress demonstrations across the Arab world's most populous country.
Mubarak and his interior minister were sentenced to life imprisonment at their first trial but the appeals court upheld complaints stemming from the weakness of the evidence offered by the prosecution.
Outside the court, pro-Mubarak demonstrators chanted "thirty years without destruction!" in reference to accusations that the Muslim Brotherhood movement which won free elections after his ouster is destroying the country.
"Look at the country now," said a supporter who gave his name as Ibrahim. "We are going bankrupt. The whole country is suffering from this economic crisis, from this lack of security."
Across the square, relatives of victims of Mubarak's security forces held posters of young men killed in the revolt.
Mahmoud Saleh, whose son Mostafa was killed during revolution, said: "He who kills must be killed. This is what we want from the trial."
Mubarak became the first ruler toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings to stand trial in person. That irked Gulf Arab rulers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of whom the former air force commander had been a loyal ally for decades.
But the case has also exposed the difficulties of justice in a country where the judiciary and security forces are still largely run by men whose positions date to the Mubarak era.
The prosecution complained that the interior ministry had failed to cooperate in providing evidence, leading to the acquittal of six senior ministry officials tried with Mubarak.
Mohamed Gomaa, 50, an IT specialist whose son Hussein, 23, was killed in the uprising, said: "Major reforms are needed in the entire justice system. Until then, we can only hope to God for a fair trial for Mubarak. I have no confidence in the judiciary."
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