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Trial date for Morsi stokes Egypt political drama

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SARAH EL DEEB | October 9, 2013 05:42 PM EST | AP

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CAIRO — CAIRO (AP) — The politically charged trial of Egypt's Mohammed Morsi will begin Nov. 4, almost four months to the day after the country's first democratically elected president was toppled by the military, authorities said Wednesday.

The prosecution of Morsi on charges of inciting his followers to kill opponents of his rule takes the crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood to a new level and is likely to fuel protests by his Islamist supporters, stoking the turmoil shaking Egypt.

Since his July 3 ouster, Morsi's backers have taken to the streets in rallies met by a fierce response by security forces that has left hundreds dead.

Wednesday's announcement comes as the United States announced it was cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Egypt and its military — a show of discontent with the crackdown aimed at pressuring the interim leadership to move quickly toward a democratically elected government.

For Egypt's military-backed government, the trial is a chance to lay out their justification for the sweeping arrest campaign and ultimately for Morsi's ouster. Authorities contend the former president and the Brotherhood, which dominated power during his year in office, committed crimes while in power — and have turned to violence since his removal.

But the military, now Egypt's dominant political power, also opens itself up to criticism it is carrying out show trials to crush the Brotherhood, which accuses the army and its supporters of wrecking Egypt's fledgling democracy.

Already there are questions whether the trial, in which Morsi and 14 other members of his Brotherhood are defendants, can be fair.

Morsi has been held in secret military detention since his ouster, with almost no contact with the outside world beyond two phone calls with his family. During his interrogation, his defense lawyers have not been allowed to talk to him and say they have not been shown any documentation of the prosecution's case.

"This is a trial held under the cannon of a tank," said Mohammed Gharib, a member of Morsi's legal team. "Is this an atmosphere for a fair trial?"

Morsi's son, Osama Morsi, told the Turkish news agency Anadolu that his father "rejects this trial and others and will not recognize it."

Rights lawyers point out that they tried to have the case prosecuted while Morsi was in office, a sign that it is not purely based on vengeance.

Hoda Nasrallah, a prominent human rights attorney, said the case has merits and is not simply political. "But there are definitely political purposes ... and score-settling," she acknowledged.

The case also is a new landmark in the political convulsions rocking Egypt over the past 2½ years. With Morsi going to court, two ex-presidents will be on trial at the same time. Longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, toppled in 2011, is undergoing a retrial on charges he was complicit in the killings of protesters against his rule.

A string of trials have begun or are in the works against some 2,000 leaders and members of the Brotherhood arrested in the past three months, most on charges of inciting violence. Prosecutors are also investigating Morsi on possible further charges of insulting the judiciary and conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas to carry out attacks in 2011 that broke Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders out of prison.

The military ousted Morsi after millions took to the streets demanding he leave office. After riding to political dominance on a series of election victories, Morsi and the Brotherhood had come under a massive backlash from a public that accused them of trying to monopolize power.

Since Morsi's removal, a court has ordered the Brotherhood banned and its assets confiscated, while authorities and the media have depicted the former president's supporters as a violent movement threatening the nation's security. Public anger against the group has been deepened by an evolving insurgency by Islamic militants, many of whom backed Morsi while in office. Since his fall, militants have escalated attacks on police, the military, and — most recently — on civilian infrastructure.

On Wednesday, suspected militants struck multiple military and civilian targets in the Sinai Peninsula, firing on a security camp, a military intelligence headquarters and a television building, and setting off a bomb targeting a top general's vehicle. It was not immediately clear if the general was hurt.

The charges against Morsi involve one of the deadliest bouts of violence during his year in office. On Dec. 4, some 100,000 demonstrators set up a protest camp outside the presidential palace to denounce a decree granting Morsi sweeping immunity from judiciary oversight. The move allowed his allies to push a disputed draft constitution toward adoption without court challenge.

The next day, Morsi's Islamist supporters descended on the sit-in, beating demonstrators and tearing down tents — attacks that sparked street battles that killed at least 10 people.

The prosecution accuses Morsi and his co-defendants of inciting his supporters and aides to kill his opponents by forcefully breaking up the sit-in.

One key question remains: Where will the trial be held? A venue that is too public would be vulnerable to pro-Morsi protests, but a trial behind closed doors will bring questions about whether the proceedings are fair.

One likely possibility is a police academy near Cairo's Tora prison complex where most of the Brotherhood leaders are being held and where Morsi may be moved. That would ease security issues of transporting the defendants. A senior police official, Essam Saad, was quoted in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper Wednesday saying a court had been set up in the facility. That would be similar to the trial of Mubarak, being held in a different police academy.

The most prominent of the 14 Brotherhood figures being tried alongside Morsi are two senior figures in the group's political party, Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, who is in hiding and will be tried in absentia. Seven others are also at large.

Some details of the prosecution's case have been leaked, including that Morsi asked the Republican Guard and the minister in charge of police to break up the sit-in outside the palace but they refused, fearing a bloody confrontation. Morsi's aides then summoned their supporters to forcefully break up the sit-in, the state news agency said.

In a speech a day after the street battle, Morsi blamed the protesters for the violence, saying his convoy was attacked and one of his drivers injured. He claimed that arrested protesters confessed to being paid thugs. But a prosecutor at the time released the detainees, saying he had been pressured by his Morsi-appointed boss to implicate them.

Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, a lawyer representing victims of the palace violence, said he filed a case against Morsi soon after the violence, but the same Morsi-appointed top prosecutor did not pursue it.

"The presidents of Egypt have now become doomed to leave the palace straight to jail," he said. "This post has become frightening."