Mubarak trial put on hold as lawyers demand new court and new judges

Call comes after crucial testimony from Egypt's current military ruler is given under a total media blackout
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The trial of Hosni Mubarak came to a halt yesterday after lawyers demanded a change in the court and judges after hearing testimony from Egypt's military ruler, a former confidant of the ousted president.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi's evidence was given under a total media blackout, with journalists barred from the court and forbidden to report any leaked details. Many believe Mr Tantawi – who was Mr Mubarak's defence minister for two decades – can be crucial in addressing the key question of whether Mr Mubarak ordered that lethal force be used against protesters during the 18-day uprising against his rule.

Mr Mubarak is charged with complicity in the deaths of nearly 840 protesters in the crackdown against the uprising, which ended with his ousting on 11 February and the handover of power to a military council headed by Mr Tantawi. Mr Mubarak could face the death penalty if convicted, but so far most testimony, including from police officers, has distanced him from any orders to shoot at protesters.

After Mr Tantawi's nearly hour-long testimony, lawyers representing the families of slain protesters demanded a new court, several lawyers who were present told the Associated Press. The demand appeared to be in connection with Mr Tantawi's statements, which were covered by the publication ban. The lawyers spoke on condition of anonymity because of the closed-door session. Their motion potentially upends the trial, which began on 3 August and has become complicated, with the judge halting live broadcasts of the sessions and a series of police officer witnesses whose testimonies largely came in favour of Mr Mubarak.

The trial is now adjourned until a higher court rules on the lawyers' demand. If the higher court accepts the motion, the trial will have to restart from the beginning with a new court and new judges. If the higher court rules against the lawyers' motion, the current trial will resume on 30 October.

The summoning of Mr Tantawi was a dramatic move. It is unheard of for a head of state in Egypt – or the Arab world – to be called to give evidence in court, and it is perhaps even more startling for the head of Egypt's deeply secretive and powerful military to take the stand. Mr Tantawi arrived under military escort at the heavily guarded courtroom in Cairo, and Mr Mubarak was present throughout.

Many believe Mr Tantawi, as a powerful insider, could provide critical insight into Mr Mubarak's alleged role in curbing the revolution by force as well as revelations about the former regime's final days. "He was inside the operation room, behind the closed doors all during the days of the revolution. He knows all the secrets," said Gomaa Ali, a lawyer representing the family of 17-year-old slain protester Mohammed Abdel-Gawad.

As Mr Tantawi testified, dozens of activists and families of dead protesters rallied outside the court, chanting, "Tantawi, tell the truth, is Mubarak a killer or not?" as they waved pictures of those killed in the uprising. A group of pro-Mubarak supporters rallied nearby, separated from the families by anti-riot police and troops.

Also on trial with Mr Mubarak are his former interior minister and six senior former security officials. Mr Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, face corruption charges too. The trial depends heavily on accounts of members of the former president's inner circle, including Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president by Mubarak during the uprising.