40 top figures from the Muslim Brotherhood underwent military trial on terrorism and money laundering charges under heavy secrecy, one of the largest such tribunals in years in a crackdown against Egypt's most powerful opposition political movement.
Defense lawyers were boycotting the session, protesting that the court didn't notify them of the trial's start - they learned from their clients. There was no public announcement of the trial date, a sign of the secrecy surrounding the proceedings.
Human rights groups in Egypt and abroad have repeatedly condemned Egypt's policy of trying of civilians before military court, which usually issue swift and harsh verdicts with no possibility of appeal - except for asking the president for clemency.
Civilian courts have twice ordered the release of the top defendant, Khayrat el-Shater, and a number of his co-defendants. The first order for their release came in January, and days after it President Hosni Mubarak ordered the Brotherhood members tried instead before the military court. A new court order for their release came Tuesday.
The three judge panel charged the defendants - 33 of whom are in custody, with seven others being tried in absentia - with leading an illegitimate group "which used terrorism as one of its means to achieve its goals, taking part in money laundry, and possession of documents that propagate the group's ideas." The defendants rejected the accusations and said they will only respond in their lawyers presence.
The three-hour trial adjourned till June 3.
El-Shater is the Brotherhood's third-highest ranking member and is known as the fundamentalist group's chief strategist and financier. He was arrested in December on suspicion of money laundering and terrorism, and afterward the government froze the assets of 29 Brotherhood members and several companies linked to the group.
"We haven's been officially notified about this trial," said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maksoud, a member of the defense team as he waited outside Haykstep, a military base outside Cairo where the trial is taking place. "The whole thing looks suspicious."
Most of the defense lawyers were staying outside the base, though one lawyer went inside to observe. Journalists were not allowed into the base, but court officials confirmed the trial had begun.
The Brotherhood has been banned since 1954 but has continued to operate and is Egypt's most powerful opposition movement. Its lawmakers, who run as independents, hold 88 seats in the 454-seat parliament.
The group advocates implementation of Islamic law but says it wants democratic reforms in Egypt, where Mubarak has had a quarter century of authoritarian rule. The government accuses the group of seeking to take over the country.
More than 300 Brotherhood members have been arrested in a crackdown since December, after Brotherhood students carried out a military-like parade. That prompted government accusations that the movement was forming an armed wing, providing students with combat training, knives and chains. The group denies forming a militia.
Egypt's Emergency Law, in place without interruption since 1981, authorizes the president to refer civilians to military trials. In 1995, in advance of parliamentary elections in that year, the government arrested many senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood and referred their cases to military court, which convicted them of nonviolent offenses and sentenced them to prison terms of up to five years. The group has undergone several military trials since then, though Thursday's was the largest in years.
Last month, the constitution was amended to allow the president to refer civilians to military court - a provision aimed at maintaining the power even after emergency laws are lifted, as promised by the government.