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In Cairo today, former President Mohammed Morsi appeared in court for the second time since he was ousted in a military coup last July. The Islamist leader wore a white prison uniform and stood in a glass-enclosed cage. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports, Morsi faces charges that could lead to the death penalty.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It was another day of drama and chaos in a makeshift courtroom, where Morsi and 21 co-defendants railed against the proceedings and insisted that Morsi is still the legitimate president of Egypt.
MOHAMMED MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: Who are you? Do know who I am? Morsi asked the judge from inside his glass cage. The judge responded: I'm the head of this criminal court. The trial was only partially aired on state television. It was the first time Egyptians heard Morsi speak, albeit briefly, since his overthrow. He also appeared in court in a separate case in November. But only brief, muted footage was aired on television.
In the current trial, Morsi is facing charges of collusion with Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups to break out of prison in 2011. The prison breaks occurred at the height of the uprising against the Mubarak regime. Some 20,000 people escaped from jail, including Morsi and other senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Human rights groups have called the charges against Morsi politicized and absurd. He is also facing trial in three separate cases ;on charges of inciting violence, espionage and insulting the judiciary. Michael Wahid Hanna is an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation. He says the fact that the trial was not aired live - as promised - shows that the military-backed government is intent on controlling what the public sees.
MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: There's a great deal of concern about not wanting the trial to be a pedestal for Morsi and the other brothers to grandstand and to get their own message across.
FADEL: The heightened political atmosphere, he says, means getting a fair trial is impossible.
HANNA: Everything is part of this nearly existential struggle between the interim authorities backed by the military and the Muslin Brotherhood and their supporters. So it's very difficult to imagine free and fair elections. It's very difficult to imagine free and fair trials.
FADEL: As the trial got underway, tensions continued to mount in a divided and increasingly violent Egypt. A top police general was shot outside his home this morning. His funeral was aired on local and state television. The interim president issued a statement saying the attack was aimed at disrupting Egypt's transition to a peaceful democracy.
The assassination follows on the heels of a spate of attacks in Cairo and elsewhere last week that targeted Egypt's security forces. An extremist militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility. But Egypt's military-backed government and the local media blame Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood for the violence. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.