CAIRO – The judges presiding over the trial of leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood stepped down from the proceedings Tuesday because security agencies would not allow the defendants to attend in court, apparently out of fear of protests, judicial officials said.
Separately, a Brotherhood-led Islamist coalition said ousted President Mohammed Morsi refuses to appoint a lawyer to represent him in his trial, which is due to start on Nov. 4, because he does not recognize the court or the political system set up since his ouster by the military.
The developments reflect the political storms surrounding the series of trials of Brotherhood members that come hand in hand with wide-scale crackdown by the new military-backed authorities against Morsi's Brotherhood since his July 3 ouster. Morsi's Islamist allies denounce the prosecutions as show trials and political vengeance. The authorities, meanwhile, seek to show that the Brotherhood has been fueling violence in the country, during Morsi's one-year presidency and after the coup, and to establish legal justification for imprisoning them.
The judges stepped down from the trial of 35 Brotherhood members, including the group's top leader Mohammed Badie and his powerful deputy Khairat el-Shater, on charges of inciting violence. The move forces the trial, which was only holding its second session Tuesday, to start over.
The move amounted to a sharp criticism of the proceedings. So far, in its two sessions since August, none of the defendants has attended the trial, apparently out of inability to ensure their safety or fear Brotherhood supporters would hold protests outside the Cairo Criminal Court where it is being held.
Announcing the three-judge panel's decision, judge Mohammed el-Qarmouti said only that it was because the panel "felt uneasiness," according to a court official. The judge did not elaborate, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But another judicial official told The Associated Press that the panel had asked the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, to bring the defendants to the courtroom for Tuesday's session. The ministry promised to do so but on Monday night, the judges were notified that "transferring the defendants to the court is impossible."
The judicial official said judges need to see the defendants, ask them questions and present them with allegations, adding that "no trial should be held just on paper." The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the judges' motivations.
Mustafa Attiya, Badie's lawyer, said the move was because the judges came under pressure by security officials to move the trial to inside Cairo's Tora prison, where defendants are held.
"The judges refused, but the pressure continued," he said. "This is not a trial, this is a farce."
The judicial official didn't deny that there was pressure to move trial to the prison. He said the prosecutor general is the only one authorized to issue an order to move the trial to a different location and "this has not happened."
The defendants in the case include six senior leaders, including Badie and his deputy Khairat el-Shater, the group's powerful financier. Four other Brotherhood figures are on trial in the case on charges of incitement, stemming from June 30 clashes that left nine dead when Brotherhood members opened fire on protesters storming their Cairo headquarters.
The other 29 are low-level Brotherhood members.
The trial is part of an extensive crackdown on Morsi's group and its supporters since the military removed Egypt's first freely elected from office on July 3 following widespread protests against him. Several thousand Brotherhood members and supporters have been arrested, while security crackdowns on their continued protests have killed hundreds of Morsi supporters.
In next month's trial, Morsi is facing charges of inciting murder, in connection to clashes during his presidency, when Brotherhood supporters attacked a sit-in by anti-Morsi protesters outside his presidential palace in December. The resulting clashes left 10 dead.
Since his ouster, Morsi has been held in a secret military detention facility, virtually incommunicado, speaking to his family only twice by phone. He has been undergoing questioning but has not been allowed to see any lawyers. In his phone calls -- the latest in September -- he underlined that he does not recognize the prosecution against him.
The "anti-coup" coalition, a grouping of Islamist factions that is led by the Brotherhood, said in a statement that Morsi "will not appoint a lawyer to represent him in the trial." It said it was applying to send lawyers to monitor Morsi's trial but "not to defend him." The lawyers, it added, would represent "victims of the coup," referring to those killed in the crackdown.
"The legitimate president and the legal team totally reject the trial," the statement said, referring to a team of Brotherhood lawyers who have been tracking the various cases involving the group.
Attiya, Badie's lawyer, also said Morsi has not assigned a lawyer to represent him in his trial. He said he another Brotherhood lawyers applied to represent other defendants in Morsi's case and to "monitor the trial from inside."
Authorities allege that Morsi supporters have committed acts of terrorism since the coup, pointing to a string of attacks against churches and government buildings. The Brotherhood and Morsi supporters deny their protests are violent and deny that they attack churches, accusing authorities of smearing their movement.
The Sinai Peninsula has seen a fledgling insurgency by Islamic militants since Morsi's fall, with near daily attacks on security forces. The military has responded with an offensive in Sinai. On Tuesday, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said in a statement posted on his official Facebook page that troops have arrested a total of 54 suspected militants, destroyed 21 of their hideouts and confiscated weapons and a computer containing details of "terrorist plots." He did not specify over what period the arrests took place.