CAIRO // A senior police officer said there was no order to shoot protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square in testimony yesterday at the trial of former president Hosni Mubarak on charges that he was complicit in killing Egyptians involved in the uprising against his rule.
The testimony came from a police general who had been called to the stand by prosecutors who had expected him to reveal who gave orders for police to open fire on protesters. But General Hussein Moussa said police were ordered to use only tear gas and rubber bullets and resorted to live ammunition only to protect police stations.
It was a dramatic and confusing start to the prosecution's case. General Moussa was the first witness to be called in a trial that has been dominated by procedural issues since it began on August 3.
The session was stormy. Outside the police academy compound where the trial is being held, hundreds of relatives of protesters who were killed in the uprising clashed with police and tried to force their way in, frustrated at being prohibited from attending the trial.
Live TV broadcasts of the landmark trial have been halted by a judges' order, angering many Egyptians who wanted to witness the prosecution of the man who ruled their country for nearly 30 years and was widely resented for a regime plagued by corruption, police abuse and a ruling-party monopoly on power.
Inside the courtroom, pro- and anti-Mubarak lawyers started fist fights after a loyalist in the audience raised a picture of the ousted president. One lawyer took off his shoes and beat another lawyer with them, and another scuffled and shouted insults, prompting the judge to adjourn proceedings briefly, according to Mohammed Damaty, a lawyer representing the victims' families.
As he has in previous sessions, the 83-year-old Mr Mubarak, who is in ill health, lay in a hospital bed in the defendants' cage along with his co-accused, including his two sons.
Mr Mubarak is charged with corruption and with complicity in the killings of protesters. His sons, Gamal and Alaa, also face corruption charges, and his former interior minister Habib El Adly and six top police officers are also charged in the protester killings. About 850 people were killed when police opened fire on protesters during the 18-day uprising that prompted Mr Mubarak's downfall on February 11.
Prosecutors claim that Mr Mubarak and his highest-ranking security chief, Mr El Adly, were ultimately responsible for orders to use lethal force against the peaceful protesters. Before yesterday's session, they had said Gen Moussa - who headed the communications unit of the Central Security Forces, which were deployed to curb the protests - would name those who issued orders.
But on the stand, General Moussa denied Mr El Adly gave any such order, according to the Mr Damaty and a human-rights activist at the trial.
The judge, who in the Egyptian system questions witnesses, asked Gen Moussa if he knew whether Mr El Adly issued orders allowing police to use live ammunition against protesters, Gen Moussa replied, "No, I don't know," according to a tweet by rights activist Gamal Eid, who was inside the courtroom.
General Moussa said it was General Ahmed Ramzy, another of the defendants, who issued the order. "Anybody else?" the judge asked. "No," General Moussa answered, according to Mr Eid.
General Moussa said live ammunition was used only against protesters who planned to attack the Cairo security headquarters, police stations and prisons. In Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the uprising where witnesses and prosecutors say police snipers shot at protesters, he said security forces used only water cannons and rubber bullets.
Mr Damaty confirmed Mr Eid's account of the testimony to The Associated Press, and he accused General Moussa of "twisting the truth".
"It was clear that the defendants have put pressure on him and that he changed his testimony," he said.
Egypt's state television said that General Moussa's testimony contradicted his earlier affadavits to the prosecutor general.
Three other police officials were to testify yesterday. But General Moussa's testimony could be damaging to the prosecution's case. Without a clear line of orders from Mr El Adly, the former interior minister and Mr Mubarak's defence could argue that other top police officers acted independently in killing protesters.
Mr Mubarak and the others could face the death penalty if convicted over the killings.