Sat, Feb 22, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Imprisoned journalists appeal for support in Cairo

NO SPACE FOR DISSENT:The journalists are accused of broadcasting false news and working without a permit in a case that is viewed as an assault on press freedom

Guardian, Cairo

Three imprisoned al-Jazeera journalists appealed for international support from a Cairo courtroom cage on Thursday, on the first day of a trial that has drawn stinging criticism from around the world.

The trio — Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed — are accused of belonging to or assisting a terrorist organization, broadcasting false news and working without a permit.

They appeared in Egyptian court wearing white prison jumpsuits alongside five other defendants, including the son of a leading Muslim Brotherhood member.

Greste, an award-winning Australian journalist, has worked with the BBC, CNN and Reuters.

Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief Fahmy is known for his coverage of Egypt’s restive Sinai peninsula. He is a Canadian-Egyptian citizen.

They deny the charges against them, apart from those relating to their paperwork, arguing that they are being prosecuted for simply doing their job in a difficult political climate.

The trial was postponed to March 5, and bail requests by their lawyers were denied.

The case has been viewed internationally as an assault on Egypt’s already restricted press freedom.

Human Rights Watch described the journalists’ prosecution as a sign of how quickly the space for dissent is “evaporating.”

Chaotic scenes ensued inside the dusty courtroom, in a prison institute next to the Cairo prison in which the defendants are being held.

During repeated adjournments, the defendants shouted to journalists through the bars of their caged dock as sparrows fluttered overhead.

Fahmy said that although the trio were in good physical shape, they found the ordeal psychologically “very difficult.”

Greste agreed, cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting hoarsely: “It’s the isolation — there is no information from the outside.”

The other defendants shouted that they had no links with al-Jazeera.

They spoke of being subjected to humiliation and torture in custody.

Although the case has prompted solidarity campaigns and official condemnations across the world, the Australian and Canadian governments have yet to comment on the case.

“We hope that the prime ministers of Canada and Australia will give us their support,” Fahmy said.

The Qatari-owned al-Jazeera network has faced mounting pressure from the Egyptian authorities since former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was deposed in a military takeover on July 3 last year.

Its Egyptian outlet, al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, is one of the few remaining channels perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The journalists were arrested in late December last year, after a police raid on their temporary offices in Cairo’s Marriott Hotel.

In private, Egyptian officials often admit that the case has been damaging to the country’s reputation, but paint it as the result of a power struggle between hardline and moderate elements within Egypt’s military-backed authorities.

Although Fahmy was originally held in a high-security unit usually reserved for dangerous criminals, he has since been moved into a cell with Greste and Mohamed.

Standing outside the courtroom, Adel Fahmy said his brother was now attempting to keep the cellmates’ spirits up by pretending to conduct a talk show between the new facility’s Salafist and jihadist inhabitants.

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