CAIRO (AP) — The judges presiding over the trial of nearly three dozen members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, including its top leader, stepped down Tuesday after security agencies refused to let the defendants attend the courtroom sessions, judicial officials said.
The move represented a sharp pushback from within the establishment over the conduct of the trial amid criticism by the Brotherhood that wide-ranging prosecutions of its leaders, including ousted President Mohammed Morsi and group leader Mohammed Badie, are only vengeful show trials.
Separately, a Brotherhood-led Islamist coalition said that Morsi refuses to appoint a lawyer to represent him in his trial, which is due to start on Nov. 4, because he does not recognize the tribunal or the political system in place since his ouster. Both trials are centered on charges the defendants incited deadly violence.
The Morsi and Badie tribunals are part of a string of trials that Egypt's current military-backed administration is carrying out as part of a heavy crackdown on the Brotherhood since the July 3 coup that removed Morsi. The authorities are seeking through the prosecutions to show that the Brotherhood fueled violence during Morsi's one-year presidency and after the coup — and to give legal justification for imprisoning its leaders.
Amid the violence surrounding the crackdown and a wave of arrests of thousands of Brotherhood supporters, calls for reconciliation that would return the group — which dominated elections after the 2011 fall of Hosni Mubarak — back into the political system have gone nowhere, with neither side giving ground.
The interim deputy prime minister, who has been one of the most vocal advocates of reaching a resolution, said the Brotherhood must renounce violence and accept the military-backed roadmap for the country's transition. He criticized the group for making no concessions.
"There has not been even a signal from the Muslim Brotherhood that it accepts," Ziad Bahaa-Eldin said in a briefing with a small group of journalists, including The Associated Press.
The Brotherhood and allied Islamists have rejected the new government and stuck to their demand that Morsi be reinstated in office. They have continued protests, often leading to clashes with security forces that have killed well over 1,000 people. The Brotherhood says its protests are peaceful, but authorities accuse them of attacking security forces and provoking violence.
The resignation of the three-judge panel overseeing the trial of Badie and 34 other Brotherhood members was an implicit, but sharp criticism of the fairness of the prosecutions.
The judges did not give their reason for stepping aside, saying only in a statement read by judge Mohammed el-Qarmouti that they "felt uneasiness" over the proceedings, according to a court official.
But a judicial official said the judges were concerned that without the defendants attending, the trial would "be held just on paper." The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. The judges' move forces the trial to start over.
So far, in the trial's two sessions — the first in August — none of the defendants has attended, apparently out of inability to ensure their safety or fear Brotherhood supporters would hold protests outside the Cairo Criminal Court where it is being held.
The panel had asked the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, to bring the defendants to the courtroom for Tuesday's hearing, the judicial official said. The ministry promised to do so but on Monday night, the judges were notified that "transferring the defendants to the court is impossible."
The official said the judges need to see the defendants, ask them questions and present them with allegations.
The judges had come under pressure to move the trial to Cairo's Tora prison, where the defendants are held, said Mustafa Attiya, who defends Brotherhood leader Badie. A move to the heavily secured facility would presumably prevent protests near the venue.
"The judges refused, but the pressure continued," Attiya said. "This is not a trial, this is a farce."
In the trial, Badie, his powerful deputy Khairat el-Shater, four other senior Brotherhood figures and 29 low-level Brotherhood members face charges of inciting violence. The case is rooted in June 30 clashes that left nine dead when Brotherhood members opened fire on protesters trying to storm the group's national headquarters in Cairo.
The question of security and the presence of defendants also hangs over Morsi's upcoming trial. It is likely to be held in a special courtroom in a police academy near Tora Prison, an arrangement similar to the trial of Mubarak. But authorities have not said whether Morsi will appear.
"Holding trials in prisons, the police academy brings them under the category of unfair trials. The basics of a fair trial are that it is attended by lawyers, relevant individuals and members of the public," rights lawyer Gamal Eid said. He pointed out that questioning of some Brotherhood leaders has taken place in jails sometimes without lawyers present.
Since his ouster, Morsi has been held in a secret military detention facility, virtually incommunicado, speaking to his family only twice by phone. He has undergone questioning but has not been allowed to see lawyers. In his phone calls — the latest in September — he underlined that he does not recognize the prosecution against him.
In next month's trial, he faces charges of inciting murder in connection to clashes in December, when Brotherhood supporters attacked a sit-in by anti-Morsi protesters outside his presidential palace. The resulting clashes left 10 dead.
The "anti-coup" coalition led by the Brotherhood said in a statement that Morsi "will not appoint a lawyer to represent him in the trial." It said it was applying to send lawyers to monitor the trial but "not to defend him."
"The legitimate president and the legal team totally reject the trial," the statement said, referring to a team of Brotherhood lawyers who have been tracking the various cases involving the group.
Bahaa-Eldin, the deputy premier, underlined that the security crackdown cannot be the only way of dealing with the Brotherhood. But he said reconciliation should be not through direct government-to-Brotherhood contacts, but through talks with a spectrum of political factions that would include the Brotherhood.
Bahaa-Eldin, a prominent liberal politician, blamed the Brotherhood for the "continuation of the atmosphere of violence" since Morsi's ouster.
He did not say whether the Brotherhood ordered attacks on the army and security forces or plotted them but he said it has "the capacity to control the violence."
In a show of confidence, Bahaa-Eldin said Egypt's ailing economy can withstand the turmoil even if no resolution is reached with the Brotherhood.
"Egypt can live with a level of violence and instability," said Bahaa-Eldin, who is also foreign cooperation minister.
"The economy will not be crippled and will continue to grow by 2 or 3 percent,"
Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.