- - Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CAIRO — Egypt’s ousted ruler faced charges of corruption and murder inside a courtroom cage in Cairo on Wednesday as Syrian tanks shelled the restive northern city of Hama in an ongoing crackdown that drew the condemnation of the U.N. Security Council.

Wednesday offered stark contrasts in the “Arab Spring,” the grass-roots anti-government movement that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February and has been met with brutal resistance by Syrian President Bashar Assad since March.

In Cairo, Mr. Mubarak, his two sons and seven other defendants were formally charged with “premeditated murder” in the deaths of hundreds of protesters at the hands of security forces during the 18-day rebellion that overthrew his 29-year rule.

Mr. Mubarak and sons Gamal and Alaa also are accused of taking gifts from a businessman in exchange for concessions in a state land deal.

Looking weak but defiant, the 83-year-old ex-dictator was wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital gurney. He is suffering from cancer and reportedly slipped into a coma last month.

Outside the courthouse, demonstrators called for the death penalty for Mr. Mubarak, who governed Egypt for nearly 30 years and faces a public trial by the people he ruled with autocratic ruthlessness.

“Execution. Nothing else,” said Rakia Mohamed, whose son was killed by a police officer in a Jan. 28 protest against the Mubarak regime. “Just like he used to try people publicly and let them die publicly, he should get the same treatment.

“He is a citizen just like the rest of the citizens now,” the grieving mother said. “He used to rule the people; now the people will rule against him.”

In Syria, opposition leaders and human rights activists accused the Assad regime of using the distraction of the Mubarak trial to bear down on anti-government demonstrators.

“Hama is being collectively punished for its peaceful protests calling for the downfall of Bashar Assad,” said Suheir Atassi, a prominent pro-democracy activist.

Like many other Syria-based activists, Ms. Atassi has gone largely into hiding and spoke to the Associated Press via email. “The Syrian regime is committing crimes against humanity. Where are the free people of the world?” she asked.

At least three tanks took up positions in Hama’s central Assi square, which in recent weeks had been the site of carnivallike demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for the downfall of Mr. Assad’s regime.

A religiously conservative city about 130 miles north of the capital with a history of dissent, Hama had largely fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.

But Syrian security forces backed by tanks and snipers launched a ferocious military offensive that left corpses in streets on Sunday, tightening their siege on Hama and sending residents fleeing for their lives.

The death toll since Sunday has reached about 100, but the exact figure is difficult to verify. About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against Mr. Assad’s regime began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists.

The assault on Hama has drawn a fresh wave of international condemnation, including at the U.N. Security Council.

After more than three months of deadlock, the council adopted a presidential statement Wednesday condemning Mr. Assad’s crackdown on anti-government demonstrators and widespread human rights violations.

The Security Council’s presidential statement on Syria carries less weight than a resolution, but it becomes part of the council’s record.

During Mr. Mubarak’s hearing, his supporters clashed with protesters outside the courthouse compound where the opening of his trial was proceeding, and riot police were called in to quell the violence, which injured dozens of people.

Inside the courtroom on the opening day of the trial, a prosecutor read the charges against the 83-year-old former dictator, who was flown to Wednesday’s hearing from Sharm el Sheik, where he has been under hospital arrest since April.

Among the requests made by Mr. Mubarak’s attorney, Farid al Deeb, was that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and other members of the current government be called as witnesses.

The Supreme Military Council, which is acting as Egypt’s interim government and is headed by Field Marshal Tantawi, has been accused by demonstrators of delaying the trial because of its complicity in the crimes of the Mubarak regime.

After hearing opening statements by attorneys for the defense and the prosecution, Judge Ahmed Refaat deliberated briefly and then adjourned the trial until Aug. 15.

The judge ordered that Mr. Mubarak be held at the International Medical Center, a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo, and that an oncologist be among the doctors monitoring him, the Associated Press reported.

The Mubarak trial aired live on state television throughout Egypt and across the Arab world, providing a historic spectacle amid protests against autocratic regimes.

Mr. Mubarak and Tunisia’s longtime leader, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, were overthrown early during the Arab Spring. But leaders such as Syria’s Mr. Assad have clung to power with ruthless fervor.

In 1982, his father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement there. Hama was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.

Activists now are accusing the regime of repeating history, and many Syrian protesters said they expect Mr. Assad to face the same fate as Mr. Mubarak.

Assad’s forces and death squads took advantage of the world and media’s preoccupation with Mubarak’s trial to storm and massacre Hama once again,” said Ms. Atassi. “But soon we will see [Mr. Assad] behind bars in a Syrian trial and he will be tried by the free people of Syria.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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