Al-Jazeera Journalists Trial Starts in Egypt

A judge denied bail to three al-Jazeera journalists in a case that critics say illustrates Egypt's disturbing authoritarian turn

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Mohamed Kamal / Almasry Alyoum / EPA

Journalists wait before the start of the trial of the journalists accused of supporting a terrorist group and spreading false information, outside Torah prison, southern Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 20, 2014.

Three journalists from Al-Jazeera went on trial in an Egyptian courtroom Thursday, in proceedings showcasing the growing intolerance of the military-backed government for independent expression from nearly any quarter.

A judge denied bail for the Al-Jazeera English journalists who have been held since December on charges of links to a “terrorist organization” and presenting false information; all three entered pleas of not guilty to the allegations, which human rights groups call a cover for a broad effort to intimidate independent reporting in the country. Fourteen other journalists have also been charged, including several who are no longer in the country. But the full scope of the government crackdown comes into focus in a stroll through the Cairo prison where Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed share a cell.

Next door, the Guardian reports, is Hisham Qandil, who was Prime Minister in the government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown July 3 by Egypt‘s military after massive public protests against the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, is a few cells down, not far from Hazam Abu Ismail, a Salafist politician who ran for President against Morsi. In his previous cell, Greste’s neighbors were secular leaders of the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011 – blogger Alaa Abd el Fatah, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Mahr.  Mahr was arrested Nov. 30 for protesting an anti-protest law. The measure was issued by the military-backed government and used to justify crackdown on Brotherhood supporters that has left more than 1,400 dead since July.

“Instead of reining in the security forces, the authorities have effectively handed them a mandate for repression,” said a statement from Hassiba Hadji Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International for Middle East and North Africa. “Once again in Egypt, the rhetoric of ‘countering terrorism’ is being used to justify sweeping crackdowns that fail to distinguish between legitimate dissent and violent attacks.”

The government’s campaign against criticism ranges widely. Individuals have been arrested for erecting posters urging a “no” vote on the new constitution. Liberal political scientist Amr Hamzawy was charged with “insulting the judiciary” for posting a Twitter message lambasting the conviction (under a law passed by Morsi’s government) of 43 employees of American organizations promoting democracy.

The Al-Jazeera case is shadowed by the network’s reputation in Egypt as a supporter of the Brotherhood, which received funds from Qatar, the Persian Gulf nation that owns the satellite news channel. A reporter for the network’s Arabic-language network Abdullah al-Shamy has been held since July and is on a hunger strike.  Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed work for the network’s well-regarded English language channel (an international network distinct from Al Jazeera America).  Analysts say prosecutors have presented no credible evidence of wrongdoing, but an Egyptian privately-owned channel’s video report of their arrest, set to ominous music and sinister-looking glimpses of the journalists’ recording equipment, reflects something of the new orthodoxy the government seeks to enforce. Channels deemed sympathetic to the Brotherhood were shut down within hours of Morsi’s overthrow, a move human rights groups viewed as the prelude to a more extensive crackdown.

“The prosecution of these journalists for speaking with Muslim Brotherhood members, coming after the prosecution of protesters and academics, shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, in a statement released for the start of the trial, which will resume March 5. The defendants were ordered to remain in custody.