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Mubarak trial adjourned for three weeks

Egypt's ousted president Hosni Mubarak, bound to a stretcher and caged, appeared in court today before the judge announced a three-week adjournment and an end to live television broadcasts.

Judge Ahmed Refaat also decided to merge the trial of Mubarak with that of his former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, as demanded by the lawyers of families of those killed in the uprising that toppled Mubarak in February.

Refaat also called a halt to further live broadcasts of the proceedings, which opened on August 3 and captivated live audiences in Egypt and abroad. After a brief session, he adjourned the trial to September 5.

Mubarak was earlier flown in by helicopter from a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo and driven in an ambulance to the court at a police academy in the capital's suburb.

As in the first hearing, Mubarak was reclined on the stretcher in the defendant's cage, exchanging brief words with his two sons and co-defendants on graft charges, Gamal and Alaa.

As proceedings resumed when Refaat sat down, the former president lay with hands clenched together across his chest, while his sons tried to shield him from the television cameras.

Mubarak confirmed his presence in a low voice, while the judge called for silence from the dozens of arm-waving lawyers packing the courtroom.

Some lawyers yelled "God is great" when Refaat, after the recess, announced his decision to merge the trials and bar live coverage.

"The decision was a good one, and it indicates the trial will be serious," said one lawyer representing Mubarak's alleged victims. "A lot of lawyers came here just for television."

The defence, led by Farid al-Deeb, insisted it needed more time to review the thousands of documents compiled by the prosecution, much of it contained on computer memory sticks and CDs first produced on Monday.

"We need at least a month," one defence lawyer told AFP, requesting anonymity because the defence had decided not to speak to reporters. "We haven't seen most of the evidence yet."

The judge also granted their request for ambulance records of dead and wounded transported between January 25, when the protests began, and January 31.

After the adjournment, several relatives of victims and some lawyers jumped on a bench and started chanting "Execution!" at Mubarak as he was wheeled out of the cage.

Thousands of riot police were deployed along with armoured cars outside the court to keep apart pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators watching the trial second's session on a giant screen.

An AFP reporter said scuffles and stone-throwing erupted between the two groups, with at least five people lightly injured.

The daily Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper reported that the interior minister had ordered security accompanying Mubarak and his sons not to salute them, after they were filmed warmly shaking the defendants' hands after the last hearing.

In the courtroom, journalists and lawyers argued furiously with a Mubarak supporter who came with a miniature of the former president pinned to her lapel.

"You all used to kiss his shoes," she screamed at them during a recess.

At the opening session, Mubarak pleaded not guilty to the premeditated murder of protesters who took to the streets to oust his regime in the uprising.

The 83-year-old former leader is accused of involvement in the killings of hundreds of anti-regime activists during the revolt which on February 11 ended his three decades in power, as well as corruption.

He and his sons pleaded not guilty at the first hearing.

Mubarak's dramatic appearance in court last week came as a shock to Egyptians who watched the proceedings on live television. Few believed he would ever be seen in court.

The defence has asked the court to call 1,600 witnesses, including top military officials.

The military was called out on January 28, after protesters torched police stations across the country, and took charge when Mubarak resigned.

Ahmed Mekki, a retired deputy head of Cairo's appeals court, said the trial would move on to investigating the evidence and calling witnesses, first for the prosecution and then for the defence.

But the court would probably cull the list of witnesses demanded by Deeb, which would provide him with solid ground for appealing a possible guilty verdict, said one of the lawyers representing victims in civil suits.

"If the court does not listen to all the witnesses, it will give grounds for appeal," said Taher Abu Nasr, whose Front for the Defence of Egyptian Protesters represents 35 plaintiffs.

Legal experts say that a thorough investigation into Mubarak's alleged crimes should have taken several more months, but the military and the government expedited the process to mollify protesters.

More than 850 people were killed in the 18 days that led to Mubarak's ouster and thousands more were wounded.

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