Egypt trial of Al-Jazeera journalists resumes amid outcry
Al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting ousted president Mohammed Mursi’s banned Muslim Brotherhood
The Egyptian trial resumes on Wednesday for Al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting ousted president Mohammed Mursi’s banned Muslim Brotherhood, a case that has sparked a global outcry over muzzling of the press.
The high-profile trial is seen as a test of whether Egypt’s military-installed authorities will allow freedom of the press, with activists expressing concern about a return to autocratic rule three years after the Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
The trial of the Qatar-based channel’s journalists also comes against the backdrop of strained ties between Cairo and Doha, a strong supporter of Mursi and the Brotherhood.
The journalists, including award-winning Australian reporter Peter Greste, are accused of supporting the Brotherhood and broadcasting false reports, after police shut down Al-Jazeera’s Cairo offices following the military’s July 3 overthrow of Mursi.
Eight out of 20 defendants are in custody, with the rest on the run or abroad.
In the first hearing on February 20, Greste said from the dock that justice would prevail.
“Peter is obviously humbled and strengthened from the international support, and that’s one of the things he thinks is keeping him safe in prison,” his brother Andrew Greste said outside the court on Wednesday.
He said his brother was in “good physical condition” and was not “physically abused”.
Andrew said his family had written a letter to the Egyptian authorities, “but we haven’t had any response”.
Al-Jazeera’s lawyer Mokhles El Salhy said he planned to ask for the release of his clients on bail at Wednesday’s hearing. It was unclear when the hearing would actually start.
Greste, a former BBC correspondent, and Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who worked with CNN before joining Al-Jazeera, were arrested at a Cairo hotel in December.
He is the only foreign defendant in custody. Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, and Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who was indicted even though she does not work for the channel, are abroad and being tried in absentia.
Prosecutors say the defendants falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war”, a possible reference to the broadcaster’s coverage of a government crackdown in which more than 1,400 people, mostly Mursi supporters, have been killed in street clashes.
The government has designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation”, although the group denies involvement in a spate of bombings since Mursi’s overthrow.
Al-Jazeera, which says only nine of the defendants are on its staff, has denied the charges.
‘Violations of fundamental freedoms’
The trial has triggered an international outcry, drawing criticism from the United States, as well as press freedom groups and scores of journalists.
On Tuesday, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it “deplores the government’s continuing violations of the fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed and protected in the new constitution”.
Human Rights Watch has said the trial is part of a crackdown on dissent, and Greste himself, in a letter written from prison in January, described what he sees as a lack of press freedom in Egypt.
— Hayden Cooper (@haydencooper) March 5, 2014
“The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices,” he wrote. “The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.”
Since Mursi’s ouster, foreign journalists have come under attack by mobs of angry Brotherhood opponents accusing them of working for Al-Jazeera to undermine Egypt’s security.
While none of the arrested Al-Jazeera journalists appear to have been working with press accreditation, the authorities say they welcome accredited foreign journalists.
Officials insist the channel has been working for the benefit of Qatar, which has hosted some members of the Brotherhood who fled the crackdown.
Al-Jazeera, especially its Arabic-language service, has often come under criticism in the past for allegedly biased reporting in the Arab world.