Hosni Mubarak, the man who ruled Egypt with an iron fist for nearly three decades, was wheeled into a Cairo courtroom on a hospital bed and placed in a metal cage as his trial opened Wednesday on charges of corruption and conspiracy in the killing of protesters who sought his ouster.
The ailing 83-year-old lay ashen-faced as he pleaded not guilty from inside the defendants' cage. His two sons, also on trial, stood beside him in white prison uniforms.
The trial, aired live on state television, marked a stunning moment of humiliation for Mubarak. Many Egyptians savored the spectacle of seeing the man who ruled with unquestionable power for 29 years — during which opponents were tortured, corruption was rife, poverty spread and political life was stifled — forced to stand trial just six months after a popular uprising toppled his regime.
"It was quite extraordinary to see this man who ruled Egypt ... in a very, very tough manner, brought into the courtroom like that," said NPR's Mike Shuster, reporting from Cairo.
It was the first time Egyptians have seen Mubarak since Feb. 10, when he gave a defiant TV address refusing to resign.
"This is the dream of Egyptians, to see him like this, humiliated like he humiliated them for the last 30 years," a sobbing Ghada Ali told The Associated Press. Ali's daughter was killed during a crackdown on anti-Mubarak protesters in February just days before the leader's ouster. More than 800 are believed to have been killed by security forces during the 18-day uprising.
The charges, read aloud by a prosecutor, accused Mubarak and his then-interior minister with "intentional and premeditated murder of peaceful protesters," and he and his sons of receiving gifts from a prominent businessman in return for guaranteeing him a lowered price in a land deal with the state.
When asked by the judge to acknowledge his presence in the courtroom, Mubarak said, "Yes, I am here," and raised his hand slightly. Asked his plea, Mubarak replied into a microphone, wagging his finger: "I deny all these accusations completely."
Outside Cairo's police academy, where the trial was held under heavy security, a crowd of Mubarak supporters and hundreds of relatives of slain protesters and other Mubarak opponents massed at the gates, scuffling sporadically, Shuster said.
"For the better part of an hour, they were throwing bottles and rocks at one another. ... Eventually, they moved riot police in to stop them," he said.
Mubarak, a sheet pulled up to his chest, was wheeled into the defendant's cage of iron bars and metal mesh as the hearing opened. He was pale and his eyes were ringed with red, but he appeared alert. With him in the cage were nine co-defendants, including his two sons — one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa — his former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, and six top former police officials.
Mubarak had been living under hospital arrest in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since April, reportedly suffering from heart problems and depression. Despite his bedridden state during Wednesday's hearing, however, "he didn't look as bad as perhaps his lawyers wanted the public to believe," Shuster said.
At times, Mubarak craned his head to see the proceedings or crooked his elbow over his face as if in exhaustion. While the other defendants sat on wooden benches in the cage, Gamal and Alaa stood next to their father's bed, leaning over occasionally to talk to him. They each carried a copy of the Quran.
Defendants are traditionally held in cages during trials in Egypt. About an hour after the session began, there was a recess and the defendants were led out of the cage. Much of the session dealt with procedural matters, as the three-judge panel officially took the names of the lawyers involved in the case and heard motions from them.
After several hours, the judge adjourned Mubarak and his sons' trial until Aug. 15, though hearings in el-Adly's case would continue Thursday.
Up to the last minute, skepticism remained among many Egyptians that Mubarak would ever stand trial, but on Wednesday he was taken from his hospital room in Sharm el-Sheikh to a military plane that flew him to a military airport in Cairo. From there, he was transferred by helicopter to the police academy to face trial.
The judge ordered Mubarak held at the International Medical Center, a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo, and that an oncologist be among the doctors monitoring him. That was one of the strongest indications yet that Mubarak has cancer after months of unconfirmed reports.
Mostafa el-Naggar, one of the leading youth activists who organized the anti-Mubarak uprising, called it "a moment no Egyptian ever thought was possible."
"I have many feelings. I am happy, satisfied. I feel this is a real success for the revolution, and I feel that the moment of real retribution is near," he told The Associated Press.
NPR's Mike Shuster reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.