CAIRO // It was meant to be the historic trial of a dictator brought to justice by his long-suffering people, but the case against Egypt's ex-president Hosni Mubarak has verged on the farcical as prosecutors and lawyers struggle to rise to the occasion.
From the start of the trial on August 3, lawyers representing Mubarak's victims drained the proceedings of gravitas as they jostled for the chance to hold forth on live television.
One man who identified himself as a lawyer told the chief judge, Ahmed Refaat, that Mubarak had in fact died some years ago and the man lying on the stretcher in the caged dock was a double.
He demanded a DNA analysis to establish the defendant's true identity.
During one recess, another lawyer declared his candidacy for upcoming presidential elections, promising to legalise hashish and export it.
But more galling to relatives of the roughly 850 people killed during the uprising that ousted Mubarak a year ago has been the prosecution's patchwork evidence against the man who ruled with an iron fist for 30 years.
Mubarak, his former interior ministry and six security chiefs are accused of ordering the killings of protesters during the 18-day revolt that forced the president to resign on February 11.
He could -- theoretically -- hang if found guilty. The prosecution has called for the death sentence, telling the court that it had assembled a strong case against the former strongman.
Yet the prosecutors, huddled together behind a desk in the courtroom, appeared to wilt as they listened to their own witnesses exonerate Mubarak and his security aides of the murder charges.
One prosecution witness, a police officer, said he had been ordered to treat protesters as brothers. And several said they were ordered not to carry deadly weapons during the protests.
At the start of each hearing, Mubarak, ashen faced and apparently disgusted by the spectacle, was wheeled on a stretcher into the makeshift courtroom at a lecture hall in a police academy once named after him.
He shares the defendants' cage with his security chiefs and his two sons Alaa and Gamal, who face corruption charges along with their father.
Mubarak's resignation and subsequent disappearance from public view into a villa in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh placated Egyptians for only a while.
Soon demonstrations calling for him to be put on trial began to grow.
After the military, which took charge of the country following his ouster, clashed with protesters in Cairo during a sit-in in April, the public prosecutor ordered that Mubarak face questioning.
A few days later, the former president and his two sons were ordered detained. And a month later they were referred to trial.
Almost every step of the way to the actual trial, the announcements appeared to coincide with growing unrest against the military, through whose ranks Mubarak had clambered to become president.
Last week, amid deadly protests against army rule, the caretaker government announced Mubarak would be moved from a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo, where he is being treated for a heart condition, to a prison hospital.
The military, headed by Mubarak's long-time defence minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has been eager to prove that it harbours no loyalty to its former master.
Putting the former strongman on trial would also help defuse growing criticism that the military was trying to delay justice.
Instead, lawyers who represent his alleged victims' families say the trial of Mubarak began too soon, before the prosecution could prepare a strong case against him.
Now, with the hearings drawing to an end a year after his overthrow, the decision to place Mubarak in the dock presents the ruling generals with a dilemma.
If Mubarak is convicted, his lawyers and legal experts believe there would be strong grounds for appeal. And his acquittal could further inflame the growing protest movement against military rule.