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Mubarak smiles through his 20-minute retrial over protester deaths

The former president's new attitude suggests he may be expecting to be released from prison. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

Hosni Mubarak waves to his supporters from behind bars as he attends a hearing in his retrial on Saturday. AP Photo
Hosni Mubarak waves to his supporters from behind bars as he attends a hearing in his retrial on Saturday. AP Photo

CAIRO // Hosni Mubarak appeared a different man as he was wheeled into court yesterday for the first day of his retrial.

Wearing fashionable sunglasses, the 84-year-old former president of Egypt appeared younger and more upbeat than in his previous court appearances. In past hearings, he lay almost comatose and was caught on camera picking his nose.

This time he waved to people in the courtroom while leaning on his chin in a relaxed and confident manner. His sons, Alaa and Gamal, smiled as scores of lawyers and journalists craned for a view of the former ruling family. It was all the more striking because Mubarak has been reported at times in the past two years to be on the verge of death and, at one point in June last year, in a coma.

The hearing lasted just 20 minutes after the judge announced he was stepping down.

The judge, Mostafa Hassan Abdullah of the Cairo Criminal Court, said he was referring the case to a lower court because he felt "unease" in reviewing the case and had an unspecified conflict of interest. Mr Abdullah was criticised last year by lawyers and activists for acquitting 21 Mubarak officials accused of organising the infamous "Camel Battle" during the uprising, in which attackers on horses and camels stormed Tahrir Square.

Immediately after Mr Abdullah read his statement, some lawyers in the courtroom began shouting: "The people demand the execution of the ousted president." Mubarak was whisked to a helicopter, which flew him to a military hospital in Cairo.

Mubarak and his former minister of interior, Habib El Adly, were sentenced last year to life in prison for not using their powers to stop the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising. But a court overturned the conviction in January, on the ground of procedural failings.

Taken together with reports of a flurry of activity at Mubarak's seaside villa in Sharm El Sheikh, the former president's new attitude suggests he may be expecting to be released from prison.

Mubarak has been in custody for two years as of yesterday, the maximum time someone suspected of a crime carrying a possible life sentence but who is not convicted should be detained, according to Egyptian law.

In what many saw as an attempt to keep Mubarak in prison, the prosecutor general announced on April 7 a new investigation into allegations that the Mubarak family misused funds meant for Egypt's presidential palaces, but it is not clear if that investigation will result in formal charges in the near future. For the time being, he can be held for an additional 15 days because of the new investigation.

All this raises the question: will Mubarak, dubbed the "Last Pharaoh" of Egypt and the only Arab leader to appear in court on trial in his own country, be released on bail?

Judge Adel Maged, the vice president of the Court of Cassation, said yesterday that if it were determined that he has been detained for the maximum amount of time under the Egyptian penal code he would be released on bail.

But one factor that could slow down or stop efforts by Mubarak's lawyers to obtain his release is a law issued last November. Law No 96 of 2012, also known as "Law for the Protection of the Revolution", created a special office within the public prosecution that is "entitled to reinvestigate and prosecute serious crimes committed during the revolution", Judge Maged said.

That office could issue new charges - including for the presidential palace fund allegations - that would prevent Mubarak from being released.

Nonetheless, it appears that Mubarak's supporters believe a release is, at least, possible.

Staff recently started cleaning Mubarak's villa and repairing equipment at the Jolie Ville Golf and Resort in Sharm El Sheikh, where Mubarak and his two sons each own a villa.

Mubarak frequently held court in Sharm El Sheikh, particularly in the past decade. He fled to there on February 11, 2011, the day he stepped down from office, but was arrested two months later. The hotel is owned by Hussein Salem, a business tycoon prosecutors accuse of corruption.