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Egyptian official: Mubarak won't attend start of his trial

CAIRO — Toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak likely won't attend the opening of his highly anticipated trial here on Wednesday because the 83-year-old former leader has health problems, a senior Egyptian official said Sunday.

"Two nurses help him stand when he wants to use the restroom. It's very unlikely that he will be transported to Cairo for the trial," said the official inside Egypt's information ministry, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

Mubarak, who resigned in disgrace in February after weeks of massive protests calling for his ouster, is accused of stealing government funds and of conspiring with senior police officials to kill demonstrators. More than 850 people died in 18 days of protests.

Egyptian media have been abuzz with reports of Mubarak's ill health. The former leader is staying at a maximum-security hospital in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, and the head of the facility, Mohamed Fathallah, said last week that Mubarak "has not been eating, is significantly losing weight and is very weak."

Yet many Egyptians want Mubarak to appear in court not just to answer the legal charges against him, but also to face a very public accounting for his three decades of iron-fisted rule. Trying him is one of the key demands of demonstrators who've returned to the streets of Cairo in large numbers in recent weeks, in protest of what they say is the interim military government's slow action on political reforms.

Mubarak is scheduled to stand trial along with his sons Alaa and Gamal, former interior minister Habib el Adly, six former senior police officials and fugitive business tycoon Hussein Salem. The trial will be aired live on state television.

All 11 defendants have been charged by the Egyptian prosecutor general with conspiring to kill protesters — another 8,000 were injured in the protests in January and February — and abusing their positions to steal government funds.

Under Egyptian criminal law, such charges, if proven, could easily put the defendants on death row — or at least long prison terms.

News of Mubarak's anticipated no-show came after court officials announced over the weekend that the trial will be held at the Egyptian police academy, an expansive maximum-security police facility on Cairo's eastern outskirts. Officials had earlier said that the trial would be held in an arena inside a well guarded district that also contains the defense ministry and Mubarak's former presidential palace.

Justice Minister Abdel Aziz el Gendy said that the change was made after police officials said that the arena would be difficult to secure because it's located near residential areas.

Justice Ministry officials said that the courtroom will host up to 600 attendees. Local and foreign media personnel have been granted permission to attend the historic trial, along with the families of victims.

Capt. Hazem Tawfiq, head of security at the entrance to the police academy, also said that Mubarak won't be present on Wednesday and that only his sons, Adly and the ex-police officials — all of whom are already in custody in Cairo — will appear.

Egyptian legal experts and lawyers for the victims of the revolution worried, however, that Mubarak's absence could lead to further instability.

"This will increase the anger of the families of victims and the Egyptian people in general," said Taher Abul Nasr, a lawyer at the El Nadeem Center, a respected independent organization that treats and counsels victims of violence and torture.

"The lack of transparency on Mubarak's health is the main source of the anger and suspicion," Abul Nasr said. "Reports have been contradicting for weeks how healthy Mubarak is."

Lawyers said that Mubarak's absence at the first session won't harm the prosecution's case, but his missing further sessions or being tried in absentia could cause the proceedings to drag on.

Montasser el Zayat, a legal expert and lawyer for the political opposition, said that the opening session Wednesday would be procedural and witnesses won't be called. He added that broadcasting the trial on TV will keep thousands of people from gathering at the trial site and will reduce the possibility of violence.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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