Australian journalist Peter Greste (left) of Al Jazeera and his colleagues stand inside the defendants cage during their trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at Cairo’s Tora prison, yesterday.
CAIRO: The trial of Al Jazeera journalists accused of supporting deposed president Mohamed Mursi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood resumed yesterday, with defendants claiming torture and denial of medical treatment.
The high-profile trial is seen as a test of the military-installed government’s tolerance of independent media, with activists fearing a return to autocracy 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 with Doha, which was a strong supporter of Mursi and his now-banned Brotherhood.
The 20 defendants, including well-known 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 them are in custody, with the rest on the run or abroad. At yesterday’s hearing, six defendants, including Greste and Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, appeared in a caged dock wearing white prison uniform. Fahmy, who was Al Jazeera’s bureau chief and was arrested along with Greste in December, told the court his right shoulder “has been broken for 10 weeks and I sleep on the floor” in a cell.
“I ask you to free me on the guarantee from the Canadian embassy that I will not leave the country,” he said. Fahmy’s father Fadel said before the hearing that his son was innocent.
“They accuse him of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, while he was among the first participants in the June 30 (protests) against (Mursi),” he said.
He added that prison authorities have not allowed him to get a needed operation. Another defendant, Soheib Said, said he was “tortured by state security.”
Without elaborating, he said he faced “physical and psychological torture” and had “asked to be checked (by a doctor) but nobody answered.”
Before the hearing began, defendant Baher Mohamed shouted: “Journalists are not terrorists,” as a bench full of security personnel separated those on trial from lawyers and reporters.
Greste, winner of the prestigious Peabody award for a documentary on Somalia, told the first hearing on February 20 that justice would prevail. His brother, Andrew, said earlier yesterday that “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. He said Greste was in “good physical condition” and not “physically abused.”
Greste 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 Al Jazeera’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 says only nine of the defendants are on its staff and has denied the charges.
The prosecution says all 20 defendants work for the channel.
The trial has triggered an international outcry, drawing criticism from the United States, as well as press freedom groups and scores of journalists.
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”. Greste himself, in a letter written from prison in January, described what he saw as a lack of freedom in Egypt. “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. “The only logical charge against my client is possessing unlicensed broadcasting equipment. Other charges are baseless and without any clear evidence,” Fahmy’s lawyer, Ibrahim Adel Wahab said.