By Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Special to the Toronto Star, Feb 21, 2014
Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a Cairo-based journalist and a fellow at the Nation Institute. His articles are compiled on his website, ‘Egypt reports’. See Sharif Abdel Kouddous’ Feb. 1, 2014 article, ‘Egypt’s war on journalists’.
The trial was held at the Institute for Police Trustees inside Tora, a sprawling prison complex in southern Cairo guarded by army tanks. The three journalists stood inside a caged dock in the courtroom wearing white prison outfits and denied the charges against them. They were refused bail and will remain behind bars until the next court session scheduled for March 5.
During a recess in the trial, they managed to communicate with reporters by shouting from the defendants’ cage. Fahmy said they faced “psychologically terrible” conditions in prison and were locked up 23 hours a day with no access to books or newspapers and no way to tell time. “We are strong,” he said.
See this additional news coverage:
* Egypt extends crackdown to journalists, by Kareem Fahim, from The New York Times, Feb. 20 2014 (online only in the G&M)
* And in today’s print edition of the Globe and Mail: Canadian journalist on trial in Egypt complains of ‘psychologically unbearable’ conditions, by Carol Berger and Gloria Galloway, The Globe and Mail, Feb. 21 2014_
* UK journalists demand freedom for jailed colleagues in Egypt, by Egypt Solidarity Initiative (MENA Solidarity Network), Feb 19, 2014
* Al-Jazeera journalists appeal for support as Egypt trial starts, by Louisa Loveluck, The Guardian, Feb 21, 2014
* Repression in Egypt: Who will they come for next?, by Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail, online and subscribers only, Feb. 21, 2014
Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen and the acting bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, was arrested by Egyptian authorities on Dec. 29, along with colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer.
The three are among 20 defendants accused of belonging to, or aiding and abetting a terrorist organization. Of the 20, only eight were present in the courtroom. The rest are at large and will be tried in absentia.
The defendants are charged with trying to tarnish Egypt’s image abroad by “spreading false news” and backing the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government in December.
In total, nine journalists from the Qatar-based media network are named in the case. The rest of the defendants have no connection to Al Jazeera, the network said. Some of the charges carry prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years.
The case has sparked an international outcry against Egypt’s military-backed government and has been condemned as an attempt to clamp down on press freedoms and quash dissent.
When informed of the protests around the world the case was garnering, Fahmy flashed a broad smile and pumped his fist in the air. He praised efforts by Canadian authorities in the case but added “I hope the Canadian Embassy can give us more support.”
Egyptian officials have said the case is not linked to freedom of expression and that the journalists raised suspicions by operating without proper accreditation.
“It has been increasingly difficult to get press passes in a timely manner,” Heather Allan, the head of news gathering for Al Jazeera English, said outside the courtroom. “This particular group was not accredited. We were wrong, but we were not working clandestinely. Lack of accreditation is not a criminal offence, usually you get a slap on the wrist.”
Prosecutors allege that the defendants set up a media centre for the Brotherhood in two suites in a luxury hotel. A video of their arrest leaked to a private TV channel shows Fahmy and Greste in a hotel suite with TV equipment scattered on desks and on the floor all set to the sinister score of the recent superhero movie, Thor: The Dark World.
Inside the courtroom, Fahmy told reporters the three journalists did not see the evidence against them and did not have time to properly prepare for the trial with access to their lawyers reduced to just one visit every two weeks. He also said he was never officially informed of the trial date and only found out about the scheduled court session from his family two days earlier.
Fahmy spoke with his right arm in a sling. His shoulder, fractured from a previous injury, was broken during his arrest. He said he has not been allowed proper medical care and that his injury should have healed months ago but was aggravated by being forced to sleep on the floor.
Fahmy and Mohamed had been held in solitary confinement in a maximum security wing of the prison with no bed or sunlight until earlier this month when they were transferred to another section and put in a cell together, along with Greste. Senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders are held in the same section, including the group’s leader, Mohamed Badie, and the former speaker of parliament, Saad al-Katatni.
Greste said that the international support for the case “contributed enormously to our protection.” Shouting through the bars, he added, “If justice is to happen we will be free soon.”
The court did not provide an interpreter and the Australian citizen said the proceedings were “impossible” to follow. During part of the trial, Fahmy stood close to Greste and provided some interpretation for him.
The other Al Jazeera journalist, Baher Mohamed, told reporters that when security forces stormed his house to arrest him in December, they shot his dog and did give time for his wife to cover her hair.
Five other defendants accused in the case but not affiliated with Al Jazeera, including the son of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy, were also present at the trial. Some said they had been subjected to torture, including being beaten and burned with cigarettes.
After the hearing that lasted a little over an hour, the trial was adjourned until March 5 to give defence lawyers time to examine the case documents, to notify witnesses and to bring in an interpreter, according to the court.
Before being escorted out of the courtroom, Fahmy shouted to reporters, “Tell Marwa I love her,” in reference to his fiancée who was waiting outside the prison walls. “Tell her we will have a big wedding when I get out.”
Greste’s brother, Andrew, was the only family member of the defendants allowed into the courtroom. Fahmy’s parents and his brother, along with Mohamed’s wife and two young children waited for hours outside the prison gates but were not allowed to attend the trial, having not been informed they needed to apply for permits to enter.
“It’s disappointing,” Fahmy’s brother, Adel, said after the adjournment. “I had hoped we would get more out of today’s session.”
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