By Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO (Reuters) – The trial of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi on charges of inciting murder of protesters was postponed on Wednesday until February 1 after officials said that bad weather had prevented him being flown to court.
The military-backed government has cracked down hard on Mursiâ€™s Muslim Brotherhood since his overthrow, arresting almost its entire leadership and thousands of its backers as well as formally declaring it a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism.
The case against Mursi pertains to violence outside the presidential palace during unrest in late 2012 ignited by a decree that expanded his powers. Around a dozen people were killed at the time. Fourteen other Islamists are standing trial with Mursi.
He had been due in court on Tuesday for the second session of his trial, in which he could face the death penalty.
State media earlier reported that Mursi, who is being held separately from other Muslim Brotherhood leaders at a jail near Alexandria, had arrived at the Cairo police academy where the court was due to convene.
But the state news agency MENA, citing a senior security official, later reported that bad weather meant Mursi would most probably not be taken to court, where riot police in body armor were deployed in nearby streets.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, in comments reported by MENA, said the pilot had been worried about taking off â€œbecause of bad weather and thick fog in Alexandriaâ€.
Fog in Alexandria forced one commercial flight to be redirected to Cyprus on Wednesday morning, the director of the airport in the Mediterranean coastal city said.
Ibrahim denied reports that Mursi had refused to attend after Essam el-Erian, another Islamist politician on trial in the same case, told reporters in the courtroom that the fallen leader had not shown up for that reason.
The Brotherhood, in a statement issued from its press office in London, dismissed the official explanation for Mursiâ€™s absence from court as â€œrisibleâ€, reiterating its view that he was a political prisoner.
The military deposed Mursi, who won Egyptâ€™s first freely contested presidential election, on July 3 after mass protests against his rule.
In his first appearance in court on November 4, he declared he was still president, shouting: â€œDown with military ruleâ€.
Police arrested 17 Mursi acolytes outside the police academy on Wednesday, according to the Interior Ministry, which described them as â€œmembers and supporters of the terrorist Brotherhood organizationâ€ and accused them of rioting. Security forces also closed off central Cairoâ€™s Tahrir Square.
The army-backed authorities brought two new cases against Mursi last month, accusing him of conspiring against Egypt with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Lebanonâ€™s Hezbollah and the Shiâ€™ite Islamist government of Iran, and separately charging him over a mass jailbreak during the 2011 uprising that toppled veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The government is pursuing a political transition plan that includes a January 14-15 referendum on a new constitution. Overseas voting was due to start on Wednesday.
Strong Egypt, a party led by former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, said it was reconsidering its participation in the vote after three of its members were arrested while putting up â€œNoâ€ posters.
Spokesman Ahmed Emam said in a statement posted on Facebook that the â€œrepressive mentalityâ€ of those currently leading the country was another reason the party is considering boycotting the referendum.
The Brotherhood announced it would shun the vote before the government declared it a terrorist group.
The army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Mursi, is now widely seen as the top contender to be elected president in an election that could happen as soon as April.
(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy, Tom Perry and Maggie Fick; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)