Egypt's deposed Mohammed Morsi declared defiantly that he remains the country's "legitimate president," telling a judge as his trial got underway on Monday that he rejects the proceedings against him.
Egypt’s deposed Mohammed Morsi declared defiantly that he remains the country’s “legitimate president,” telling a judge as his trial got underway on Monday that he rejects the proceedings against him.
It was Morsi’s first public appearance since his ouster in a July 3 coup. He was brought earlier in the day before a Cairo court from the secret location of his four-month detention to face trial on charges of incitement of murder and violence.
“I am Dr. Mohammed Morsi, the president of the republic. I am Egypt’s legitimate president,” Morsi said in response to the judge calling his name out after identifying him as a “defendant.”
“I refuse to be tried by this court,” said Morsi, who was elected in June 2012 and ousted almost exactly one year later.
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His comments were reported by security officials who were inside the courtroom and who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the proceedings.
The start of the hearing was delayed by nearly two hours over what the officials said was a dispute over Morsi’s refusal to wear a prison uniform, part of his rejection of the trial’s legitimacy.
The session later got underway, though it was not immediately known how the issue of Morsi’s attire was resolved, but the proceedings were soon adjourned because the defendants — Morsi and 14 other Muslim Brotherhood figures — started chanting and disrupted the hearing. The adjournment, ordered by presiding judge Ahmed Sabry Youssef, was likely to last till later on Monday.
Since his ouster, Morsi has been held at a secret military location. He was flown by helicopter early Monday to the trial venue — a police academy in an eastern Cairo district. His co-defendants were taken to the venue from their jail in a suburb south of the city in armored police cars.
If convicted, Morsi and the other defendants in the case could face the death penalty.
The trial is fraught with risks and comes amid a highly charged atmosphere in a bitterly polarized nation, with a deepening schism between Morsi’s Islamist supporters in one hand and Egypt’s security establishment and the nation’s moderate Muslims, secularists, Christians and women on the other.
In a last-minute change, authorities on Sunday switched the trial’s venue in a move apparently aimed at thwarting mass rallies planned by Morsi’s Brotherhood.
Security was tight around the police academy, with hundreds of black-clad riot police backed by armored vehicles deployed around the sprawling complex. Police helicopters hovered over the site. The final stretch of road leading to the academy was sealed off, with only authorized personnel and accredited journalists allowed to approach the facility.
The academy is also being used for the re-trial of Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, whose 29-year regime was toppled in a 2011 popular uprising. Mubarak is charged with failing to stop the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising.
Several hundred Morsi supporters rallied outside the police academy, carrying posters with his photo and banners depicting an open palm with four fingers — the symbol commemorating a pro-Morsi sit-in that was violently cleared by security forces in August. They also chanted slogans against Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military chief who led the July coup.
Across town, several hundred Morsi supporters also rallied outside the Supreme Constitutional Court and the capital’s main court complex in the downtown area.
“I came here to witness this farce,” Gamal Azab, a Morsi supporter, said outside the police academy. “I am not afraid of the police, but I am worried about my country.”
Since his detention, Morsi has had little communication with the outside world. He has been extensively questioned by prosecutors and has not been allowed to meet with lawyers. He has spoken at least twice by telephone to his family and received two foreign delegations.
Brotherhood supporters have called the detention an outright kidnapping, and Morsi has refused to cooperate with his interrogators.
Morsi faces charges along with 14 other Brotherhood figures and allies — including top leaders Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian — in connection to clashes last December outside his presidential palace that left at least 10 dead.
In those riots, Morsi supporters set upon peaceful protesters camped outside the Cairo palace. Day-long clashes followed and video clips posted on social networks showed Morsi supporters detaining and torturing opposition protesters outside the walls of the palace. The Brotherhood claims that most of the victims were Brotherhood supporters, but that assertion is disputed.
Unlike Mubarak’s first trial, the proceedings against Morsi are not likely to be aired live. After Monday’s session, Morsi will probably be taken back to the secret location he has been held at, instead of being transferred to a normal prison, for fear his supporters would turn the prison surroundings into a “focal point of endless protests.”
The judge in Mubarak’s retrial has ruled that those hearings would not be televised, a move seen as a reaction to the chaos that defined the first trial, when Mubarak and his security chief received life sentences.
After the July coup, Egypt has witnessed one of its worst bouts of violence in decades. On Aug. 14, security forces violently cleared protest camps set up by Morsi supporters, sparking days of unrest that left more than 1,000 dead.
Since then, violent incidents have multiplied: a suicide car bomber tried to assassinate Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in September, and dozens of members of the security forces have been killed in a string of drive-by shootings, explosions and car bombs. Churches have been torched, and in an attack in Cairo last month, four Christian Copts and one Muslim were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church.
Cairo’s traffic was lighter than usual for a Monday morning, suggesting that some of the capital’s estimated 18 million residents have opted to stay home for fear of violence. Some private schools told parents to keep their children at home Monday, but state schools, government offices and banks were operating normally. Security was beefed up at vital installations across the country in anticipation of violence.
A newspaper known for close ties to the military published on Sunday what appeared to be the first pictures of Morsi in detention.
The daily el-Watan published a transcript of remarks it says were made by Morsi and captured on video, describing him as being “in total denial” and saying, “I am the president of the republic, in accordance with the constitution.” Later in the day, it posted a video showing Morsi wearing a blue track suit, sitting on a chair and speaking calmly.
The paper quoted him as saying: “I will represent myself in front of any court … I am not involved in killings of the protesters … I will tell judges that.”
A military official said the video was leaked to the paper in order to give his supporters a first glance of the former president to lessen the impact of the shock of his first public appearance.
International rights groups have called for a fair trial for Morsi.
In a Sunday statement, London-based Amnesty International said Morsi’s trial is a “test” for the Egyptian authorities, who must grant him the “right to challenge the evidence against him in court,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Middle East director.
Morsi’s family considers the trial illegitimate and will not attend, his son Osama told The Associated Press on Sunday. He said they feared they would be mistreated and humiliated.
Associated Press reporters Mariam Rizk and Tony G. Gabriel contributed to this report from Cairo.