CAIRO — Three judges presiding over the trial of Egypt's senior Muslim Brotherhood members stepped down Wednesday after the defendants disrupted the proceedings and chanted against the judiciary— a move that will delay proceedings against the group's top leadership.
It was the second time judges recused themselves from the same case. A previous panel stepped down in October after police failed to bring defendants into the courtroom because they could not secure it. The move was at the time seen as a criticism of the trial.
This time around, the judges appeared to be offended by the 17 defendants' accusations. From inside a cage, the group — which included the Brotherhood's leader and its financier Khairat el-Shater — chanted against the military and accused the judges of being their lackeys. "Down with the judiciary of the military," the defendants chanted.
The tactic has been used by the group's imprisoned leaders since a number of trials against them began last summer following a crackdown on the Brotherhood in the wake of the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Morsi himself appeared in court in November, and the trial proceedings were also disrupted by the repeated chants and interruption. The judge in Morsi's case adjourned the trial to January.
Wednesday's trial of leading Brotherhood figures is rooted in deadly clashes that left nine dead on June 30 outside the group's headquarters in Cairo. The defendants are facing charges of inciting the deadly violence.
Senior Brotherhood member Mohammed el-Beltagy shouted Wednesday at the judges, calling the trial "illegitimate."
The chief judge, Mostafa Salama, adjourned the session and asked lawyers to ensure the defendants cease the disruption. But after the session resumed, the chants and interruption continued.
The Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, shouted from inside the cage that those who killed his son during a protest will be brought to justice. "Those who turned against legitimacy will also face God," he said, in reference to the leaders of the coup against Morsi.
Brotherhood defense lawyer Mohammed el-Damati said the defendants doubt they will have a fair trial.
"The panel of judges stepped down because they didn't approve the chants repeated by the defendants," el-Damati said. "The chants stress that the defendants don't trust the justice system as a whole, and not a particular panel of judges."
Several hundred Brotherhood leaders have been arrested since the coup and most will likely face charges of inciting violence.
The authorities are seeking through the prosecutions to show that the Brotherhood fueled violence during Morsi's one-year presidency and after — and to give legal justification for imprisoning its leaders.
Even rights lawyers who see a strong basis for prosecuting Brotherhood figures over violence and abuses of power expressed concern over the scope of the projected trials.
Rights lawyer Hoda Nasrallah said the repeated stepping down of judges is in part a manifestation of the troubled relations between the judiciary and Morsi when he was in office, and would likely prolong the duration of all the trials.
Public disputes between him and thousands of judges when he was in office almost paralyzed the functioning of courts.
Nasrallah said the Brotherhood's tactic appears designed to embarrass the judges to strengthen their claim that the trials are not fair, and that their detention is illegal. But there are likely to be dozens of cases against the leaders— which will keep proceedings going for months.
"It is the judges right to do so. They are avoiding defamation," she said. "It is also a message (to the defendants) if they don't trust the judiciary and they don't believe it is fair, it may end up hurting them also" by prolonging their trials.
The judges referred the case Wednesday to a Cairo appeals court, which will then appoint a new panel of judges for the trial.
Also Wednesday, clashes continued for the fourth straight day in the Islamic Al-Azhar University and for the second day in Cairo University as students protested against the current authorities.
The clashes raged for hours outside the two universities, with students lobbing rocks at police who used tear gas to disperse the crowds. The dean of the engineering faculty at Cairo University resigned in protest, saying he failed to protect the lives of students because of the ongoing clashes.
The head of the university asked him to stay on in a caretaker capacity, Egypt's state news agency reported.
The country's Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim accused the Brotherhood of fueling the protests in an attempt to "drain the police force," drag them inside university campuses and disrupt a key vote expected next month on the new amended charter.