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Witness at Mubarak trial says troops were told to use force

But testifies he didn’t hear orders to fire on crowds

By Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press / September 9, 2011

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CAIRO - An ex-security officer testified yesterday in ousted leader Hosni Mubarak’s trial that his superiors ordered troops to forcefully disperse Egyptian protesters with tear gas, but he never heard orders to shoot at the protesters.

Mubarak, 83, and his security chiefs are facing charges of complicity in the deaths of protesters, a charge that could carry the death penalty.

Many Egyptians have been clamoring for the conviction, and even execution, of the former Egyptian president, reflecting widespread anger not only over the deaths of about 850 protesters but also a reputation of corruption, police brutality, and abuse in his nearly 30-year rule.

So far, testimony from witnesses has caused embarrassment to the prosecution. One witness was even briefly detained Wednesday on perjury charges for changing his story under oath, denying he had any knowledge of police receiving ammunition. The judge later released him without an explanation.

Yesterday, Major General Hassan Abdel-Hameed, who was first deputy interior minister for training under Mubarak, told the court that some police officers opened fire to break up the mass protests that forced Mubarak to step down Feb. 11.

Later, Abdel-Hameed, who has not been charged in the case, told a reporter that during a security meeting, his superiors also ordered police to break up the rallies with armored vehicles ahead of one of the deadliest days during the uprising. He did not say that in court.

Abdel-Hameed’s testimony was less definitive. He presented recorded TV footage as evidence of use of force against protesters. When pressed by the defense lawyers, he said only tear gas was part of the security plan.

He said he was ridiculed by his seniors when he objected to the use of force.

“I told the minister if we use force, we will be met with even more force,’’ he said. “The police made many mistakes in dealing with the protesters. It got involved between the regime and the people.’’ He made similar statements in court.

Prosecutors need to prove a clear line of orders from Mubarak and others allowing the use of lethal force. Otherwise, their lawyers can argue that other top police officers acted independently in killing protesters.

If the trial brings evidence of a direct order from Mubarak for lethal force to be used, that would boost pressure for a death sentence if convicted. But if responsibility is seen as less direct - such as a failure to try to stop killings - a conviction would likely bring a lighter sentence.

Mubarak has denied any responsibility for himself or his security forces.

The judge has summoned the top members of Egypt’s ruling military council to testify, but in closed sessions. Egyptians hoped to hear their testimony, expecting the top generals would detail their ousted leader’s role in putting down protests. Testimony from the military council leaders is set to begin behind closed doors Sunday.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s current military rulers have frozen new licenses for private satellite TV stations and are taking steps against broadcasters they say are inciting violence, restrictions activists say harken to the crackdown on freedom of expression under Mubarak.

Mubarak’s consecutive governments had sent journalists to jail for reporting on the president’s health and other sensitive issues, and managed a web of security agents who meddled in news rooms.

During the protests that ousted Mubarak, authorities banned broadcasts by the Arabic and English language channels of the pan-Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera and revoked the credentials of all of its journalists.

Communication Minister Osama Heikal told reporters late Wednesday that the satellite licensing decision stems from concerns about violence being incited and about what he called an increasingly chaotic media scene.

He said the freeze was temporary, but did not say when it would end, and did not say how many pending requests were affected.

Heikal also said he had designated authorities to take legal measures against satellite stations that incite sedition and violence. He did not name any stations or said what penalties might be imposed.

Also this week, Egypt’s prosecutor general office said it has officially informed media outlets of the court order banning any reporting or publishing of the testimony of Egypt’s military ruler and four other senior current and former officials next in the trial of Mubarak.

The moves come as the military rulers face rising accusations that they are moving too slowly toward democracy.

Activists have called a rally critical of the military council for today, the first in a month, and dubbed it “Correcting the course.’’

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took charge after Mubarak stepped down in February, promising to hold elections and hand over power to civilians within six months.

But seven months later, the military council has yet to announce a specific date for elections; has passed a complicated election law which many say would preserve the power of Mubarak allies in the new parliament; and has interrogated and detained its critics, while trying thousands of civilians before military courts.

Reporters Without Borders in a statement yesterday also said bloggers in today’s Egypt face restrictions reminiscent of the repression that prevailed before Mubarak’s overthrow.

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