Ousted Egyptian leader defiant in court

Last updated 06:04 29/01/2014

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Egypt's toppled President Mohammed Morsi stood alone in a soundproof glass-encased metal cage at the start of a new trial, wearing a white prison uniform, pacing and shouting angrily at the judge in apparent disbelief: "Who are you? Tell me!"

Morsi is on trial with 130 others, including Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and militants from the Palestinian Hamas group and Lebanon's Hezbollah, over charges related to the prison breaks at the height of the 18-day 2011 uprising against his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. After five hours, the trial was adjourned to February 22.

The trial coincided with the third anniversary of one of the most violent days of that revolution that plunged the country into prolonged turmoil, and that eventually led to the virtual collapse of the police and their withdrawal from the streets.

Morsi supporters clashed with police in central Cairo. In two separate attacks, gunmen also killed an aide to the country's interior minister in a drive-by shooting outside Cairo and a policeman guarding a church in a southern section of the capital.

Security forces also deployed heavily and erected checkpoints in the city as they braced for more violence with protests by Morsi supporters scheduled for later in the afternoon.

The former Islamist president, ousted in a popularly backed July 3 coup, also declared to the judges that he remains Egypt's legitimate leader during an unaired portion of the hearing, a state television reporter inside the courtroom said. In aired edited footage, defendants chanted that their trial was "invalid." Earlier, the defendants turned their back to the court to protest their prosecution, the state television journalist said.

In a half hour of recorded footage aired on state television, Morsi protested being in a cage for his trial on charges related to prison breaks in 2011. Raising his hands in the air and angrily questioning why he was in the court, Morsi yelled in apparent disbelief: "Do you know where I am?"

Judge Shabaan el-Shami responded: "I am the head of Egypt's criminal court!"

Morsi paced in a metal cell separated from other defendants. Earlier, a promised live feed was cut, something a senior state television official told local media that security forces demanded.

Authorities have said the jailbreaks were part of an organised effort to destabilise the country. Rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the chaotic events, saying they hold the police responsible for the pandemonium. A Brotherhood lawyer has said the trial appears aimed at "denigrating" Morsi and the Brotherhood.

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It was the second time Morsi has appeared in court since the coup. At his first appearance in November, Morsi wore a trim, dark suit and appeared far less agitated, though he interrupted the judge and gave long speeches, declaring forcefully that he was "the president of the republic." At the time, he had emerged from a four months detention in an undisclosed location, appearing in public for the first time since his ouster.

Authorities apparently resorted to the glass-encased cage to muffle the defendants' outbursts, which have disrupted the previous hearing. The judge controls the microphone to the cage.

Morsi already faces three other trials on various charges, some of them carrying the death penalty. The charges against Morsi in this case carry a life sentence.

Prosecutors in the case demanded the maximum penalty for the defendants.

"These acts were committed with the terrorist aim of terrifying the public and spreading chaos," a prosecutor said, addressing the court. He said Morsi and other leading Brotherhood members have plotted with foreign groups to "undermine the Egyptian state and its institutions."

The case is rooted in the 2011 escape of more than 20,000 inmates from Egyptian prisons - including Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood members - during the early days of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak. Morsi and the other Brotherhood leaders escaped two days after they were detained three years ago as Mubarak's security forces tried to undercut the planned protests.

At the time, authorities also cut off Internet access and mobile phone networks, crippling communication among the protesters and with the outside world.

In court, 19 other defendants appeared with Morsi. Another 111 defendants, including members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, are being tried in absentia.

The hearing was being held at a police academy complex in eastern Cairo, where a heavy security presence stood guard.

Protests by Morsi supporters were scheduled to mark the third anniversary of the so-called "Friday of Rage," in which protesters and police clashed for hours in 2011 before police withdrew from the streets and the military deployed.

Earlier, police forces lobbed tear gas and clashed with Morsi supporters burning tires on a major street in central Cairo, kilometres from the courtroom.

The Interior Ministry said two gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed a senior police officer as he left his home in the Haram district of Giza, a neighborhood near the Pyramids. Major General Mohammed el-Said was an aide to the interior minister and head of the technical office in ministry, which is in charge of police.

Later in the afternoon, gunmen in a speeding car shot and killed a policeman and wounded another guarding a church in the October 6 district in southern Cairo, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. There were no worshippers at the time in the church.

Also today, MENA reported that gunmen blew up a natural gas pipeline Monday night in the volatile Sinai Peninsula south of el-Arish, the capital of the North Sinai governorate. It said firefighters rushed to the scene to extinguish a fire there.

Gas pipelines have come under attacks several times since Mubarak's downfall, which led to a fracturing of Egypt's security agencies. Suicide bombings also have spiked and spilled into the capital, Cairo, and other cities. An al-Qaida-inspired group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem, has claimed responsibility for most of those attacks.

- AP

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