An Egyptian security official testified in the trial of Hosni Mubarak on Monday that neither the former president nor his interior minister had issued a shoot-to-kill order in connection with the deaths of more than 850 protesters earlier this year.
The witness, Gen. Hussein Said, told the Cairo courtroom that all orders to disperse protesters during the uprising that toppled Mubarak in February came from a top security official. The official initially ordered the use of tear gas and water cannons and later rubber bullets, Said testified. He said he did not know of any orders to use live ammunition.
The question of who gave the shoot-to-kill order will determine whether the 83-year-old Mubarak could get the death penalty if convicted.
"We know that the protocol says that it's only the president who can issue these orders," said Khaled Fahmy, the chair of the American University in Cairo's history department, who is closely following the trial. "Some people say it is not the president but the minister and now they are pushing it further down by basically saying it's the deputy minister who is the head of the security forces who actually issued the order without the minister knowing. So that is basically the question. Where does the buck stop?"
The trial, which began Aug. 3, had been dominated by procedural issues but took a key turn Monday as the first witnesses took the stand.
Testimony was reported by Egyptian state TV and through Twitter from people inside the courtroom.
Monday's hearing was the first since the judge banned broadcasts of the trial because he felt lawyers and activists were acting up for the cameras during two earlier hearings. State television also showed a frail Mubarak being wheeled on a hospital bed into the police compound here where the trial is being held.
The session erupted in scuffles inside and outside the courtroom, forcing the judge to recess the proceedings less than an hour after they began.
Dozens of families of those killed during the 18-day revolt that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11 tried to force their way into the hearing at the police academy where the courtroom has been set up. Protesters called for his execution.
Iman Sayed Ali, whose son and only child was killed on Jan. 28, said her son will have died for nothing if Mubarak isn't convicted. She was hoping Monday's testimony would help bring him to justice.
But the day-long hearing provided Egyptians with more drama than substance.
"When they saw that there wasn't going to be a big screen with a broadcast, they were pushing to get inside and were pushed back by riot police," NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo. "Then just a short while ago, there was a very violent scuffle between pro-Mubarak forces and these families. Rocks were flying."
She said an NPR staffer saw four ambulances taking people away. TV footage also showed metal barricades being thrown, while hundreds of anti-riot police chased young men in the streets.
In the court Monday, the session was stormy, as the many lawyers involved in the case shouted insults at one another.
Human rights lawyer Gamal Eid tweeted from inside the courtroom that the session started with "big fight between the victims' lawyers and Mubarak's lawyers." Chants of "the people want the execution of the ousted one, rocked the courtroom," he said.
Eid tweeted that lawyers screamed and yelled at the judges, prompting Rifaat to briefly halt the session. Egyptian TV confirmed that the session was halted and then resumed.
Mubarak once again watched the proceedings from a metal defendants' cage after he was wheeled into court on a stretcher. He is charged with corruption and with complicity in the killings of more than 850 people after police opened fire on protesters during the uprising.
Mubarak's 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.
Four key witnesses were expected to take the stand for the prosecution Monday. Attorneys have filed motions to summon more than 1,000 witnesses in the trial, including Hussein Tantawi, the head of the council of generals that took over control of the country after Mubarak's fall. Tantawi was also Mubarak's defense minister.
"This the beginning of the real trial," said Khaled Abu Bakr, a lawyer representing families of slain protesters.
Ramadan Ahmed Abdou, the father of a slain protester, said he applied for permission to attend the session and had been told he could pick up the permit Monday morning before the trial. But when he arrived, he was told there was no permit for him.
"People are very frustrated," he told The Associated Press. "We said OK when the judge decided to ban the broadcast of the trial, but we want to see it ourselves," he said.
Crowds held posters of slain protesters and shouted, "To die like them or to get their rights." One held a hangman's noose and demanded Mubarak's execution. Some set fire to pictures of Mubarak, while chanting, "The people want to execute the butcher."
Nearby, about 50 Mubarak supporters in a counterdemonstration cried out, "Why humiliate the president who protected us?"
NPR's Nelson said the trial could last as long as a year if history is any precedent. She pointed to the trial of Egyptian police officers accused in the death of a young businessman, Khaled Said, that became a rallying point against police brutality.
"There are two officers accused of beating him to death in Alexandria," Nelson said, "and those police officers have been on trial now for a year and still nothing has happened with regard to that case."
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.