CAIRO (AP) — Two Muslim Brotherhood officials have been sent to trial on charges of kidnapping and torturing three men during protests in November following Islamist President Mohammed Morsi's decrees, since rescinded, that granted him near absolute powers.
The case in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour north of Cairo is the first of its kind against Morsi's Brotherhood and is likely to embarrass the group at a time it is trying to fend off opposition charges of monopolizing power in the deeply polarized country.
Mohammed Bahnasy, a lawyer for the three victims, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the case was referred to trial a day earlier. The two Brotherhood local officials — Mustafa el-Khouli and Mohammed Abdel-Radi — have not been detained.
An arrest warrant has been issued for el-Khouli, who has failed to respond to a summons for questioning, according to Bahnasy. Abdel-Radi was questioned and released pending the start of the trial, according to him and another lawyer involved in the case, Mohammed Abdel-Aziz.
The Brotherhood's chief lawyer, Abdel-Monaim Abdel-Maqsoud, said the decision to refer the two to trial was "hurried" and described the investigation as "flawed."
He told the AP defense witnesses showed up at the prosecutors' office on Saturday to testify that el-Khouli and Abdel-Radi were innocent, only to be told it was too late.
"Everything will now have to wait for the trial," he said. "I am surprised at the speed with which this has been done. We have many cases of Brotherhood victims of violence and we have not seen any of them go to trial yet," said Abdel-Maqsoud.
He confirmed that the case against the two was the first of its kind since the ouster two years ago of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Bahnasy said the three men allegedly kidnapped and tortured were Mahmoud Ali, 17, Mohammed Mansour, 18, and Mustafa Farag, 21. He said the three were detained separately for up to five hours during clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi at Damanhour's main square on Nov. 24.
El-Khouli was identified by Bahnasy and Abdel-Aziz as the administrative head of the Brotherhood's office in Damanhour. They said Abdel-Radi is a senior member of the local branch of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
The two were sent to court following a two-day sit-in by the three victims and their supporters outside Damanhour's prosecution office to protest against what they claimed was stalling on a trial.
The Damanhour case is just one of a series of bouts of political violence in the turmoil roiling Egypt since the overthrow of Mubarak's regime in February 2011.
The violence has deepened the political schism tearing Egypt apart since Morsi took office nine months ago as the country's first ever freely elected president.
At least a dozen offices belonging to the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party were ransacked, some torched, by protesters angered by Morsi's decrees.
The decrees gave immunity from the courts to an Islamist-dominated panel that drafted and hurriedly adopted a new constitution. The document was later ratified in a nationwide referendum.
One major bout of violence was on Dec. 5 when Morsi supporters were shown on video posted on social networking sites to be running impromptu detention centers outside the presidential palace in Cairo, where they tortured protesters during daylong clashes in the area.
The Brotherhood says at least 10 of its supporters were killed that day, but the opposition disputes the figure and maintains that Morsi supporters started the violence when they set upon peaceful protesters staging a sit-in outside the palace.
On March 22, the two sides clashed outside the Brotherhood's national headquarters in an eastern Cairo district. Both sides, according to witnesses, detained and beat members of the rival side during daylong clashes with rocks, sticks and firebombs.
The violence that day had its roots in an incident a week earlier when Brotherhood supporters assaulted a small crowd of protesters painting anti-Morsi graffiti on the street outside the Brotherhood's headquarters. One Brotherhood supporter was caught on camera slapping a female protester to the ground.
The Brotherhood maintains that its supporters were provoked and that they had pleaded with the activists not to paint abusive graffiti or plaster flyers on the headquarters' walls.
Morsi blames thugs for the political violence and accuses the opposition of providing political cover for it. The opposition, mostly liberal and secular, maintains that it does not condone violence.
Bahnasy said the referral documents leave no room for doubt that the alleged detention and torture of the three men took place in the Brotherhood's Damanhour offices and quotes witnesses as saying they had seen sticks, tasers and swords inside the group's headquarters.
"I will study every relevant legal book to prepare for this case," said Bahnasy, a native of Damanhour. "I will do nothing but this case and I will pursue it to the very end."
Mahmoud Duweir, a Damanhour activist, said he was at the city's main square when the Nov. 24 incident took place.
"All three came out with their clothes ripped. They had bruises and marks of blows from sticks on their bodies."
A Brotherhood supporter, Islam Massoud, was killed in clashes in the square a day later in a case that has been intensely publicized by the group.
The Brotherhood says he was killed by opposition protesters. But Bahnasy, Abdel-Aziz and Duweir insist he was slain by a single blow to the head by a Brotherhood supporter who mistook him for a protester during pitched street battles.