CAIRO — Flat on his back and flanked by two sons dressed in prison whites, ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak peered from his hospital bed through the bars and mesh of a cage as the accusations against him were read Wednesday.
It was a scene of startling symbolism: a once untouchable family brought to justice by an emerging democracy they sought for years to crush.
"You have heard the charges the prosecutor made against you," said Judge Ahmed Refaat. "What do you say?"
"I totally deny all these charges," said Mubarak, holding a microphone, his face stern, his voice strong.
It was a watershed moment in modern Middle Eastern history: a seemingly invincible man who epitomized a generation of Arab autocrats, a stalwart U.S. ally who ruled unchecked for nearly 30 years over the most populous Arab nation, wheeled into a steel defendants' cage.
It was a sign of Mubarak's long and all-encompassing grip on the country that outside the courtroom, hundreds of Egyptians gathered to cheer and condemn the interim military government for putting him on the stand, on charges that could carry the death penalty.
Mahmoud el Khouly, a 28-year-old engineer who received a gunshot wound to his right foot from police who were battling protesters on the third day of last winter's revolution, stood among a crowd of anti-Mubarak protesters, leaning on his cane. His doctor had ordered him to remain in bed until his wound healed, but Khouly had come anyway.
"I came here to see Mubarak in that cage," he said. "I am happy and waiting to see him sentenced to death.''
The images, broadcast throughout the Arab world, perhaps served as a warning to the rulers of Libya, Syria, Yemen and other nations swept up in rebellions inspired by the revolt that brought down Mubarak's government in February.
Egyptians believe if he can be brought to justice, their country can lead the way to political and economic revival across the Middle East and North Africa.
"It still feels like a dream," said Mohammed Farouk, a pharmacist watching the trial in the Doctor's Cafe in downtown Cairo. "This is the same state television channel that used to make it appear that the whole world revolved around Hosni Mubarak. Now, this same station is showing him defeated and lying in a cage."
A policeman sitting nearby shouted: "Hang 'em."
One son, Gamal, who many had suspected would become president one day, leaned over his father. The other, Alaa, clutched a Koran. Co-defendants Habib Adli, the former interior minister, and six top police officials sat quietly in the cage. All pleaded not guilty.
The trial was held on the outskirts of Cairo at a Police Academy once named in Mubarak's honor. Heavy security, including at least 3,000 police and soldiers and more than 30 tanks, surrounded the compound as 600 spectators, including families of victims, clamored for a glimpse of the onetime war hero who took power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
The hearing was occasionally raucous as more than 30 lawyers representing victims' families jostled to address the judge.
One lawyer yelled out that Mubarak was a serial killer. Another said the trial was a test case for liberty and democracy. One attorney suggested that the man in the bed was not Mubarak, but a dupe who replaced the president when, the lawyer claimed, Mubarak died in 2004.
Mubarak's trial has been adjourned until Aug. 15. He will be held at a nearby hospital.
There were reports that he had stopped eating, entered a coma and become depressed.
Information from the New York Time was used in this report.