Egyptian authorities switched the venue for the trial of the former Islamist president yesterday, a last-minute change made after the Muslim Brotherhood called for mass demonstrations at the original location.
The trial of Mohamed Morsi, now to be held east of the capital Cairo today, could lead to another round of bloodshed as his supporters look likely to face an emboldened security apparatus that has boosted its forces for the hearing.
Speaking at a news conference, appeals court judge Medhat Idris gave no reason for the change of venue, adding that the hearing would not be televised live.
Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location and received only rare visits and telephone calls since his 3 July ousting in a popularly-backed military coup. The trial will be his first public appearance since then, possibly inflaming the already tense political atmosphere. He stands charged of inciting violence and murder during clashes last year at the presidential palace.
The heavily-fortified police academy in an eastern Cairo suburb where the trial is to be held has already been transformed into a courthouse for the trial of another former president, Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a 2011 uprising.
The room erupted in chaos immediately after Mr Idris’ announcement, with Morsi supporters chanting “down with military rule,” leading the exasperated judge to throw his statement into the air and storm out of the room.
The trial of Morsi, who emerged from the Brotherhood to win the nation’s highest political office, is the latest chapter in the interim authorities’ crackdown on the group.
The development comes as US secretary of state John Kerry was in Cairo pressing for reforms during the highest-level American visit to Egypt since the deposing of Mr Morsi. The coup and the ensuing crackdown on his protesting supporters led the US to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
Opening a ten-day tour of the Middle East, Europe and North Africa, Mr Kerry and Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy played down tensions between Washington and Cairo. They pledged to work through the turbulence caused by the military’s removal of Morsi.
In recent statements, a coalition led by Morsi’s Brotherhood described the trial as a “farce” and reiterated that it regarded him as the “elected, legitimate president” of Egypt. “This is a naive tool to break our will and our determination,” it said yesterday.
Chances of a new confrontation between security forces and Morsi supporters on the trial day are high. A Brotherhood-led group has called for mass rallies, while the interior minister has ordered the deployment of large numbers of security forces to guard the trial venue.
International rights groups urged interim authorities to both investigate previous killings and to ensure a fair trial.
In a statement yesterday, London-based Amnesty International said Morsi’s trial is a “test” for the Egyptian authorities, who must grant him the “right to challenge the evidence against him in court,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Middle East director. “Failing to do so would further call into question the motives behind his trial.” The group called for either the release of Morsi or transferring him from his secret place of detention to a known facility.
Morsi is being tried along with 14 other Brotherhood members and allies, including senior leaders Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, as well as three of the ousted president’s top aides.