By Sarah El Deeb
FILE – In this July 13, 2012 file photo, then Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaks to reporters at the presidential palace in Cairo. An Egyptian judge says Jan. 28 has been set as opening day for the third trial of Morsi, this one on charges of organizing prison breaks with the help of foreign militants. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
CAIRO (AP) — The trial of Egypt’s ousted Islamist president on charges of inciting the murder of protesters was adjourned Wednesday until next month, after security officials said heavy fog grounded the helicopter meant to bring Mohammed Morsi to court.
Two defense lawyers in the case of Morsi, 13 leading Muslim Brotherhood members and an Islamist accused the government of trying to keep the toppled president out of the public eye ahead of a coming constitutional referendum. They also said authorities denied Morsi visits from his family and his defense team.
“The decision was inspired by the political circumstances— which require that he doesn’t appear,” defense lawyer Osama el-Helw said. Morsi’s “appearance will inspire his supporters.”
Wednesday’s hearing was to be Morsi’s second court appearance since his ouster in a popularly-backed military coup on July 3. In his first appearance, he insisted he was still the country’s legitimate president and challenged the legitimacy of the court, regularly interrupting the judges and prosecutors.
Morsi is held in a high security prison in Borg el-Arab, just outside of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, requiring him to be flown in for each of the court appearances in the outskirts of Cairo. Under Egyptian law, a defendant in a criminal trial must be in court for hearings to proceed.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim told the private television station CBC that a helicopter due to transport Morsi had been ready, but thick fog prevented the helicopter from taking off.
The website of the airport at Borg el-Arab showed that traffic there was normal Wednesday, with one flight to Saudi Arabia cancelled. A later flight to Saudi Arabic departed on time. There was fog early Wednesday morning in Cairo, though it is regular this time of year.
Morsi’s hearing came less than a week before Egyptians are scheduled to start voting in a nationwide referendum on a new constitution that would replace the 2012 charter drafted under Morsi’s government if approved. About 680,000 Egyptians living abroad started voting on the new charter on Wednesday.
A strong majority supporting the referendum and a significant turnout would give the military-backed interim government considerable legitimacy. That would allow it to continue with a transition plan calling for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.
There are growing signs that a presidential election will be held first, possibly as early as spring. Military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup that toppled Morsi, has seen his popularity surge and has not ruled out running for president.
Wednesday’s court session lasted only a few minutes, with Judge Ahmed Sabry Youssef adjourning the proceedings until Feb. 1.
Just before court began, Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood member who is also on trial, appeared in the metal cage that holds defendants and told journalists and lawyers in the hall that those charged consider the trial “unfair and illegitimate.”
“We refuse to involve the Egyptian judiciary in a political dispute,” he said, saying that the trial was “revenge” against the Islamist group.
El-Erian said he and other defendants had been brought to the courtroom soon after midnight and were kept waiting for hours. Guards quickly took him out of the room as lawyers representing the victims in the case heckled him.
The charges against Morsi and the 14 others stem from violence outside the presidential palace when his supporters attacked a sit-in protesting his rule. The clashes killed at least 10 people and critics said the violence showed the Brotherhood’s reliance on a private militia to defend his powers.
The defendants in the case are charged with inciting the killing of three of those protesters. The rest of the dead are believed to be Morsi supporters.
This is one of three trials that Morsi faces. Charges in the other two cases have to do with Morsi’s jailbreak in 2011 — during the uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak — and allegations that he conspired with militant groups. Charges in all three cases carry the death penalty.
Since Morsi’s ouster, a Brotherhood-led coalition has waged a campaign of street protests to demand his reinstatement. The military-backed government meanwhile has cracked down on the Brotherhood, arresting thousands of its members, including the group’s top and mid-level leaders. In August, security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-in camps in Cairo, killing hundreds.
Last month, the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, intensifying its crackdown and increasing public hostility to Islamists amid a surge in militant violence.
Several dozen Morsi supporters clashed with security forces on Wednesday outside the court, a makeshift lecture hall at a Cairo police academy. The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said authorities arrested 17 protesters. Another 15 pro-Morsi protesters were arrested in the nearby district of Nasr City, a stronghold of the Brotherhood, said Ibrahim, the interior minister.
In a statement, the Brotherhood called for the immediate release of Morsi and other “political prisoners” and said it held the government responsible for his safety. A Brotherhood-led coalition called for continued protests.
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