CAIRO-- One of the most secretive figures of Hosni Mubarak's inner circle testified Tuesday at the ousted leader's trial under a complete media blackout, facing questions whether his former boss ordered the use of lethal force against protesters.
Omar Suleiman, who was Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief and was named vice president during the last weeks of his rule, is the first in a string of members of the ousted leader's most senior leadership to appear in the court. Egypt's current military ruler, who was Mubarak's defense minister, had been due to testify on Sunday but failed to appear.
It is unprecedented for a court in Egypt to summon such high-level figures -- particularly authorities from the highly secretive military and intelligence services. The judge has closed the court for the testimonies, barring anyone from attending except lawyers. Not only are journalists forbidden to attend, they are not allowed to report anything on the testimony or even quote lawyers who attended the session.
The 83-year-old Mubarak, his former interior minister and six other senior police officers face charges of complicity in the deaths of the protesters during the 18-day uprising that led to Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster. They could face the death penalty if convicted. More than 850 protesters were killed by police who opened fire on crowds.
The trial hinges on the question whether Mubarak or then-Interior Minister Habib el-Adly ordered police to use lethal force against the protesters -- or if Mubarak took any action to prevent bloodshed once it began.
The 74-year-old Suleiman, one of the most secretive figures in Mubarak's government, was Mubarak's point man in dealing with the protesters against his rule. Witnesses confirmed that Suleiman arrived Tuesday morning at the heavily fortified Police Academy on Cairo's outskirts where the trial is being held.
Hafez Abu Saada, a rights advocate who is serving as a lawyer for families of slain protesters, said the chief judge in Tuesday's session is expected to ask Suleiman the key questions, "Did Mubarak give orders, by any phrasing, to use force against protesters?" The state-run Al-Akhbar daily said Suleiman will be asked whether Mubarak gave any orders to stop shooting of protesters.
In July, Suleiman told prosecutors that neither Mubarak or his security chief Habib el-Adly issued orders to use violence against protesters. According to a transcript published by the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, Suleiman blamed "criminal elements" for storming police stations and prisons during the uprising, prompting security forces to act in self-defense leading to deaths.
However, he said that Mubarak was aware of the degree of anger and frustration in Egypt because of deteriorating economic conditions and widespread corruption and that he asked Mubarak to order the army to be ready to be deployed if needed to protect the state institutions. Suleiman told prosecutors that he advised Mubarak to meet protesters' demands.
Many believe that Suleiman himself should be a co-defendant alongside Mubarak, given that he had such a leading role in the leadership during the uprising.
Mohammed Zarei, another victims' families' lawyer, described Suleiman as "the black box."
"Excluding Suleiman from charges of complicity of killing protesters was and remains a surprise to me because he holds part of the responsibility," he said.
Suleiman was appointed as Egypt's vice president on Jan. 29 -- five days into the popular revolt -- in a bid to rescue Mubarak's rule. In his final move, Mubarak tried to hand over all his powers to Suleiman while remaining president, but intensified protests prompted the military to force Mubarak and Suleiman to resign the next day. It was Suleiman who appeared on state TV on Feb. 11 to tersely announce that Mubarak had stepped down and that power now lay with the military.
Suleiman had played a major behind-the-scenes role during Mubarak's regime, entrusted with the most crucial issues. He managed relations with the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring Sudan. He was also Egypt's point man in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians and between the rival Palestinian factions.
Suleiman became military intelligence chief in 1991 during the Gulf War, when Egypt was among the Arab forces that helped the U.S.-led coalition drive Saddam Hussein's military out of Kuwait. He rescued Mubarak from an assassination attempt back in mid-1990s on the hands of Islamic militants.
Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and his chief of staff Sami Anan failed to appear in court to testify this week as expected. The judge subsequently summoned them to appear on Sept. 24-25.