The judge trying former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters who toppled his regime ordered a halt to the live broadcast of his trial Monday after a chaotic session in which lawyers shoved and scuffled to get on television.
Showing the hearings live on state television had been a nod by Judge Ahmed Rifaat to activists who complained that the military rulers now in charge of the country were dragging their feet bringing Mubarak and stalwarts of his regime to justice.
"The aim is to remove the humiliation. Now, God knows how long it [the trial] will take," said bestselling novelist and prominent rights activist Alaa el-Aswany.
The decision was met with suspicion by Ramadan Ahmed, father of a 16-year-old protester killed during the 18-day uprising that toppled the regime.
'I am an Egyptian. I am against the humiliation of the nation's leader.' —A saying on T-shirts worn by Mubarak supporters
"This is not correct. How can I be reassured and feel the justice," said Ahmed, who was refused access to the Cairo courtroom. "I want to see justice realized before my eyes."
Rifaat said his decision to stop the broadcasts was designed to "protect the public interest." He did not elaborate, but the presence of cameras, television commentators and journalists interviewing lawyers had given the trial a circus-like atmosphere.
Lawyers for the victims' families bickered over their turns to address the judge and came close to exchanging blows with Mubarak supporters, all in front of the television cameras. Some among them just waved and smiled to the cameras.
"The decision is meant to stop the lust [that] people in the courtroom are showing for getting on television," said lawyer Mukhtar Noah, who represents the families of more than 200 victims. "It was not a political decision."
Mubarak, who ruled Egypt unchallenged for 29 years, also faces charges of corruption together with his two sons — one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa.
He could face the death penalty if convicted of complicity in the killing of 850 protesters thought to have been shot or run over by security forces during the uprising. The trial was adjourned until Sept. 5.
Mubarak is the first Arab leader in modern times to be put on trial by his own people, a feat that many see as a warning to authoritarian Arab leaders. Saddam Hussein was tried and hanged after his 2003 ouster, but the proceedings were supervised by U.S. officials.
"This is a historic event regardless of whether the trial will be shown live on television or not," said defence lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr, who represents a wounded protester.
Many Mubarak supporters see his appearance in court, bedridden and inside a grim metal and wire cage, as humiliating for a former head of state and decorated war hero. They applauded the decision to ban cameras.
The ailing, 83-year-old Mubarak occasionally dozed off and answered with a curt "present" delivered with a deep voice when Rifaat called his name out as part of a roll call.
Nermine Nabil, 21, was wearing a T-shirt that read: "I am an Egyptian. I am against the humiliation of the nation's leader." She carried a portrait poster of Mubarak that was passed out to his supporters along with T-shirts.
"When I was a baby, Mubarak was in the desert fighting. Now we are in the desert fighting for him," she said, alluding to the academy's location on Cairo's desert outskirts.
Clashes between Mubarak loyalists and victims' families left 34 people wounded, of whom seven needed to be hospitalized, according to the health ministry.