ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — An Algerian military tribunal on Monday opened the unprecedented trial of a brother of the country's longtime former president and two ex-intelligence chiefs, accusing them of plotting against the state.
Heavy security, with roadblocks leading to the courthouse in Blida, south of Algiers, marked the start of the closed-door trial, along with commotion inside the tribunal.
Said Bouteflika, brother and special counsellor of former head of state Abdelaziz Bouteflika, refused to answer the judge's questions and walked out, one of the lawyers present, Farouk Ksentini, said later, according to the TSA online news outlet, which posted a video of the lawyer's remarks.
Another defendant, Gen. Athmane Tartag, an intelligence chief who worked directly under the president, refused to leave his cell, said Ksentini, a member of a group of lawyers for the defense.
Also on trial is a former powerful intelligence chief, Gen. Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufik — a man whose name once made Algerians tremble. The leader of the leftist Workers Party, Louisa Hanoune, who for decades has been a fixture on Algeria's political scene, was the fourth defendant.
All four are charged with plotting against the state and undermining the army.
The charges center on March meetings between the four. Hanoune's lawyer, Rachid Khane, said the meetings aimed to examine Algeria's political situation amid protest marches for the resignation of Bouteflika, who was seeking a fifth mandate despite infirmities following a stroke.
Some within the administration saw more sinister designs, reportedly including plotting to fire powerful army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah.
The trial was closed to all but families of the defendants, and it was unclear how long it would last.
A demand to postpone the trial was rejected, trial lawyers said at the end of the first day.
Lawyers for Toufik, who headed the dreaded DRS security service until 2015, said ahead of the hearing that their client was ailing after hurting his shoulder in a prison fall and recovering from an operation.
"He's not in a state to explain himself, listen to questions, defend himself or be judged," Miloud Brahimi was quoted as saying in the newspaper Le Soir d'Algerie.
Judges considered he was fit to stand trial.
If found guilty of the charges, the defendants risk five to 10 years in prison — or death, if the plot is proven and if it was concocted in very particular circumstances.
The four defendants were arrested in early May, a month after protesters, with the help of army chief Gaid Salah, forced Bouteflika to resign after two decades in power. His bid to seek a fifth term despite infirmities following the 2013 stroke — and rampant corruption in his regime — triggered the pro-democracy street protests. The demonstrations have continued for 31 consecutive weeks.
Suspicions about a potential plot were reportedly raised after a first meeting, held on March 27 at a state residence, between the four on trial.
Salah, an authority figure in the gas-rich North African country which currently has no elected president, has repeatedly referred to a plot in a series of speeches. He has claimed protesters are being manipulated by networks of "the gang" — his term for Said Bouteflika and his entourage.
With his brother, the then-president, rarely seen in public, Said Bouteflika is widely reported to have become a decision-maker while creating an informal circle of favorites who allegedly enriched themselves.
The army chief used his claims of a vast conspiracy to press for — and get — a date set for presidential elections. The administration and parliament fell in line and announced elections for Dec. 12.