Cairo: Egypt’s commitment to free speech will be tested today, with a Cairo court set to announce a verdict in the trial of three Al Jazeera English journalists accused of aiding terrorists, doctoring footage and endangering Egypt’s national security.
Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, local producer Baher Mohamed, and Australian ex-BBC reporter Peter Greste respectively face 15, 15 and seven years in jail if found guilty. They have already been in jail for nearly six months, after being arrested from their homes and hotel rooms in December 2013.
The trio are being tried alongside five students with links to Islamist protests and the head of an Islamic charity, in an attempt to portray the journalists as the masterminds of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked plot to smear Egypt’s reputation. In Egyptian media, the whole group is known as “the Marriott cell”, after the hotel from where Fahmy and Greste were arrested — though both journalists and students say they had never met each other before arriving at court for the first time in February.
Monitors of the trial’s 12 sessions say that the evidence presented by the prosecution is clearly too weak to convict any of the defendants.
“Technically, I don’t see how a court can convict any of the defendants based on the evidence we have seen,” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), who has monitored the trial on behalf of Amnesty.
“If they are convicted, it means that you are not allowed to hold any views that the government does not want you to believe - and that would be a complete attack on the freedom of expression.”
Footage allegedly seized from the three journalists, and presented in court by prosecutors as evidence of their guilt, has included several videos with little or no connection to Egyptian politics or Al Jazeera. These include a programme about horse welfare by Sky News Arabia, a BBC documentary about Somalia, raw footage of a Kenyan press conference and a song by Gotye, an Australian singer-songwriter.
In a move that undermines the strength of the state’s case, the prosecution’s three key expert witnesses have denied they have the authority to judge whether the journalists have endangered national security — a denial that contradicts written claims made before the start of the trial on which the prosecution’s case rests. Investigators also admitted they did not understand the difference between al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, a local Arabic network seen to favour the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Jazeera English, a global channel for whom the three journalists work.
The trio — among 15 journalists in Egyptian jails — will hope that today brings to an end a six-month ordeal that has seen Mohamed and Fahmy subjected to spells in solitary confinement in Egypt’s highest-security prison, and left Fahmy with a permanent disability in his shoulder.
Greste’s brother, Mike, who is in Egypt to support his sibling, said the experience had taken a heavy toll on their family. “It’s been the most stressful and trying time that we’ve ever experienced as a family,” said Mike, who has now spent longer at liberty in Egypt than Peter, who was arrested after only a fortnight in the country. “All our lives have been put on hold, and the prospect of anything other than an acquittal is nothing less than terrifying. But we’re hopeful, and this a very good opportunity for Egypt to show they’re on the path to democracy.”
Hopes of an acquittal rose slightly when Judge Mohamed Nagy announced a comparatively brief period between the last session and the coming judgement - a sign that he may not need time to write the lengthy legal justification necessary for a guilty verdict. A fourth Al Jazeera journalist — Abdallah Elshamy — was released last week after 10 months in jail without charge in a separate case, further raising hopes of clemency in his colleagues’ trial.
Some observers suspect that only the student defendants will be jailed - even though, according to the ECRF’s Lotfy, “there is nothing that we have seen in the evidence that shows the students have made material that threatens national unity, and there’s no evidence we’ve seen that they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
But even the journalists’ acquittal is far from guaranteed in a politicised trial that many have portrayed as an attempt to silence opposition voices.
While the government has a particular quarrel with Al Jazeera, a Qatari-owned network perceived to back Egypt’s ousted president, Mohamed Mursi, some speculate that the trial is also intended to frighten all journalists from reporting on contentious issues.
“If we’re in jail because we called Egypt’s 2013 regime change a coup, why aren’t CNN and the BBC in the cage?” shouted Fahmy from the defendants’ cage during a recent hearing. “Why isn’t every journalist in the cage?”