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Former minister denies blame for deaths of Egyptian protesters

Egypt's feared former interior minister yesterday pleaded not guilty to charges of causing the death of unarmed protesters earlier this year, becoming the most senior official of the toppled Mubarak regime to stand trial for alleged crimes during the country's uprising.

The court adjourned the trial of Habib el-Adly until 21 May, delaying the verdict in what is seen as a test of the new military regime's willingness to try to convict allies of former president Hosni Mubarak, whose 30-year rule crumbled in the face of massive protests in February.

Up to 850 Egyptians died as security forces unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges in a bid to stamp out the massive demonstrations.

Mr el-Adly was seen as the power behind the police force, renowned for its brutality, corruption and abuse of power. Six other senior officers are facing similar charges of ordering the killing of unarmed protesters, and could face the death penalty if convicted.

Mr Mubarak, who has suffered heart problems, has also been detained pending an investigation into abuse of power and links to the deaths of protesters. He is at a clinic in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he fled after his ousting, but Egypt's public prosecutor has ordered his transfer to a prison hospital in Cairo after doctors declared that he was fit to travel. His two sons, Gamal and Alaa, have also been detained over allegations of corruption.

Friends and relatives of dead protesters gathered outside the courtroom in Cairo yesterday, demanding that Mr el-Adly and his fellow accused be hanged if found guilty.

"If the defendants are not executed for the present accusations, they will be executed for using explosives against the protesters," Othman el-Hifnawy, a lawyer for one of the committees that charged Mr el-Adly, told Reuters.

Court officials said Mr el-Adly's trial was postponed to allow defence lawyers more time to prepare. Judge Adel Goma'a also said he wished to relocate to a bigger courtroom to allow the hundreds of relatives of the dead protesters room to watch the proceedings.

Pro-democracy activists have accused the ruling generals of not doing enough to end the endemic corruption and abuse.