Egyptian trial of pro-reform judges halted after protests

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Thousands of riot police locked down central Cairo as the government attempted to discipline two senior judges for speaking out about election fraud.

A hearing by the government-controlled Supreme Judicial Council had to be postponed after large demonstrations disrupted the session. Protesters and journalists were arrested and beaten by plain-clothes security forces.

Several hundred people attended the demonstration outside the Cairo High Court and they were faced with an overwhelming security presence. Members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, socialists, and activists from the Kifaya! (Enough!) movement held placards reading, "the whole nation supports the judges".

The hearing came after weeks of street protests in support of the judges, in which more than 100 people have been detained.

The two judges - Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki - were due to appear in court yesterday to answer charges that they had "tarnished the judiciary's image" by publishing a blacklist of pro-government judges allegedly complicit in vote-rigging during the 2005 parliamentary elections. Both deny publishing a blacklist, although they stand by their claim that the elections were unfair.

Along with members of the pro-reform Egyptian Judges' Club, the two men have been leading calls for true judicial independence. Egypt's judiciary is effectively controlled by the Ministry of Justice - a situation pro-reform judges see as unsustainable.

Yesterday's proceedings were suspended after High Court officials refused to allow the two judges to enter the court with their chosen staff. Mr Mekki and Mr Bastawisi then presented a list of demands to the court, which included the ability to bring in their own staff and the release of jailed activists. Mr Bastawisi told al-Arabiyya TV: "We refuse to present ourselves to this court again until all of the prisoners have been release." A new date of 18 May has been set for the hearing.

State security troops clashed with demonstrators while events unfolded inside the court. One Kifaya activist said: "The march was forced to move away from the courthouse, and then plain-clothes police began to take protesters out from the crowd and beat them." Journalists were also targeted. An al-Jazeera cameraman was badly beaten after refusing to surrender his equipment. "I could see him trying to protect his camera while they were kicking him - I had to move away because I was afraid," a demonstrator said.

The clashes come in a period of heightened tension in Egypt. Recent sectarian violence in Alexandria, terrorist attacks in Sinai and renewed political opposition have made the regime increasingly nervous. In response, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif instructed parliament to extend for two years the notorious emergency laws, which allow it to detain suspects almost indefinitely. They have been in force since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.