The judge in ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s retrial stepped aside on Saturday, in a chaotic opening hearing that lasted just seconds and saw a proud and combative Mubarak smile and wave in the dock.
Head judge Mostafa Hassan Abdallah told the court he would recuse himself and send the case to the Court of Appeal, which will then refer the trial to a new circuit, sending the case of the ousted strongman back to square one.
As the judges filed out of the courtroom, uproar erupted with people shouting and waving their arms. Civil society lawyers attending the trial chanted: “The people want the execution of the president.”
In October, the same judge had acquitted defendants in the infamous “Battle of the Camels” trial, who were accused of sending men on camels and horses to break up a protest during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.
“This judge and this circuit acquitted all the defendants in the battle of the camels and there is a lot of doubt over their position. This prevents him from conducting this trial,” said Amir Salem, a lawyer for the families of victims.
Mubarak, his former interior minister Habib al-Adly and six security chiefs were in the dock — albeit briefly — for their alleged complicity in the murder and attempted murder of hundreds of peaceful protesters on January 25-31, 2011.
The former president and Adly had both received life sentences in a first trial in June, but all six of the security chiefs were acquitted, sparking outraged protests across the country.
Months of rumours that Mubarak was too weak to attend his retrial were put to rest on Saturday when the former leader seemed healthy as he sat up in a stretcher in the defendants’ cage, smiling and waving to supporters.
“We love you, big man!” a handful of his supporters yelled at him.
His sons Alaa and Gamal, who are also facing a new trial for corruption, appeared to be in good spirits as they smiled and chatted with their father.
Earlier on Saturday, television footage showed Mubarak wheeled out of an ambulance on a stretcher and taken into the Police Academy in a Cairo suburb for the hearing.
A handful of supporters outside the courthouse held up posters of their former leader, chanting: “Where are the days of Mubarak?” but they were outnumbered by security personnel.
Mubarak was flown to the academy that was once named after him by helicopter from the Cairo military hospital where he is being treated, the official MENA news agency said. He left the compound the same way.
The prosecution has demanded that Mubarak undergo a medical evaluation to assess whether he could be transferred back to prison, MENA reported.
Mubarak, who turns 85 in May, has suffered several health scares and MENA even reported him clinically dead at one point as he slipped into a coma.
His original trial in August 2011 was a major moment for both Egypt and the region, being the first time an Arab leader deposed by his people had appeared in court in person.
Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, once symbols of Egyptian power and wealth, also faced retrial on corruption charges. Another defendant, business tycoon Hussein Salem, was to be tried in absentia.
In January, Egypt’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, ordered the retrial after accepting an appeal against Mubarak’s life sentence, citing procedural failings.
Legal experts said the original case verged on the farcical, with patchwork evidence and prosecution witnesses exonerating the defendants.
President Mohamed Morsi, who won elections on the Muslim Brotherhood’s ticket the month of the initial verdict, had pledged new trials for former regime officials including Mubarak.
But until Saturday’s courtroom turmoil, the fate of the ousted strongman has been largely eclipsed by often violent political unrest and economic woes currently gripping Egypt.
However, there is still widespread anger over no one yet being held accountable for nearly 900 deaths during the 18-day uprising in 2011.
Mubarak’s epic fall, from dictatorial head of the Arab world’s most populous nation to a defendant behind bars, was for many a promising sign the revolution which toppled him was on the right track.