CAIRO — Toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his two sons and several others charged with plotting to kill hundreds of anti-government demonstrators will face a very public trial in Cairo beginning next Wednesday, a senior Egyptian official said Thursday.
The announcement — which came after the Egyptian health minister reported that Mubarak's health was stable enough for him to be transported to Cairo — allayed fears among many Egyptians that the 83-year-old former president would escape a trial or it would be postponed, which probably would have fueled massive protests.
The trial will be historic not only in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, where Mubarak ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades and a president has never before faced trial. It also figures to echo across the region, where the "Arab Spring" protests have challenged many entrenched regimes but recently have run into sharp government crackdowns.
Along with Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, fugitive businessman Hussein Salem, former Interior Minister Habib el Adly and six senior police officials multiple charges of stealing government funds and conspiring to kill more than 850 protesters during the revolution that overthrew Mubarak's regime.
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Deputy Justice Minister Mohammed Munie announced Thursday morning that a decision had been reached on the trial's location: a large arena within a maximum-security government zone in eastern Cairo known as Madinet Nasr, which also houses the Defense Ministry, the headquarters of the ruling military council and several other top government facilities including the presidential palace, Mubarak's former official residence.
The decision came after a lengthy meeting among top military and security officials, who determined that the venue could be secured well enough for the trial, Munie said.
In a sign of the huge public interest, the Justice Ministry said that the arena, which in the past has hosted trade shows and fairs, would be open to lawyers, journalists and families of the victims, although the court would determine the number of attendees.
Egypt's public prosecutor has charged Mubarak with conspiring with Adly and other senior police officials to kill "participants in peaceful protests" that erupted across Egypt in late January. Mubarak is accused of inciting some police officers to fire on protesters or attack them with their vehicles in a bid to hold on to power.
The trial venue had been debated for weeks, with much speculation suggesting that justice officials would choose to try Mubarak in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, where he lies ill in a maximum-security hospital. The head of the Sharm el Sheikh hospital, Mohamed Fathallah, said Tuesday that Mubarak "has not been eating, is significantly losing weight and is very weak."
But the health minister, Amr Mohamed Helmi, said Thursday that "Mubarak's health is stable and there is no threat in transporting him to Cairo for the trial."
Some Egyptians have dismissed claims about Mubarak's failing health as a ploy by the former president's allies in the interim military government to gain sympathy for him.
The tourism minister, Mounir Fakhry Abdelnour, said that holding the trial in Sharm El Sheikh, one of Egypt's most popular tourist destinations, would have been "a disaster" for a tourism industry that already had lost billions of dollars this year because of the ongoing unrest.
Prosecuting Mubarak has been a top demand of protesters since January. Public anger has been building against the ruling military, which has been widely criticized as slow to enact reforms and to try former regime members.
Securing the trial venue was a major concern of security officials, especially after recent clashes between police forces and the families of those killed during the revolution outside the supreme court during the initial phases of Adly's trial, as well as trials of other former police officials.
Munie said that the military and police would handle security for next week's proceedings and that "unprecedented measures have been taken to secure the trial."
Some Egyptians speculated that Mubarak and the other defendants would be transported to the trial by helicopter, a common mode of transport for Mubarak when he was in power. In recent weeks, protesters have attacked convoys of vehicles that carried ministers who were on trial.
Mohamed Kadri Said, a strategic expert and former army officer, said Egyptian authorities would be able to ensure sufficient security, but that the historic trial would create serious logistical problems in overcrowded, traffic-choked Cairo.
"It would have been much better to hold the trial out of the capital or at least on the outskirts," Said said. "Cairo is a very crowded city, and that adds to the challenges the security authorities will be facing."
Among families of the victims, many were skeptical that Mubarak will be tried. Ahmed Atta Ahmed, a lawyer who represents the families of 13 people who were killed or wounded in the protests, speculated that the trial could be postponed.
"I don't trust the authorities," he said. "They might not transport Mubarak at the last minute due to his health condition. They are already getting the public ready for that by spreading the news of him refusing to eat."
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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