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CAIRO — Egypt said 20 journalists, including four foreigners, working for Al-Jazeera will face trial on charges of joining or aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security — an escalation that raised fears of a crackdown on freedom of the press.
It was the first time authorities have put journalists on trial on terror-related charges, suggesting authorities are expanding the reach of a heavy-handed crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the military’s ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
A trial date was not set, and the full list of charges and names of defendants not yet issued. But they are known to include three men working for Al-Jazeera English — acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, award-winning correspondent Peter Greste of Australia and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian. The three were arrested on Dec. 29 in a raid on the hotel suites where they have been operating from.
The charges are based on the government’s designation last month of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Authorities have long depicted the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood. But police largely targeted its Arabic service and its Egyptian affiliate, and while journalists have been detained the decision to refer cases to trial is unprecedented.
Al-Jazeera denies bias and has demanded the release of its reporters, whose arrest sparked an outcry from rights groups and journalist protection organizations. Authorities have also denied the network’s reporters accreditation.
The prosecutor’s office said today that 16 Egyptians in the case are accused of joining a terrorist group, while the foreigners — an Australian, a Dutch citizen and two Britons — were accused of helping to promote false news benefiting the terrorist group. If found guilty, the defendants could face sentences ranging from three year for spreading false news to 15 for belonging to a terrorist group.
The 20 journalists were accused of setting up a media network that used two suites in a luxury hotel in Cairo as a media center.
The statement said the defendants “manipulated pictures” to create “unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state” and broadcast scenes to aid “the terrorist group in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion.”
An official from the high state security prosecution investigating the case said Fahmy, the acting bureau chief, was an alleged member of the Muslim Brotherhood, led the media operation that “fabricated footage” and broadcast it with the “aim of harming Egypt’s reputation.” The official said equipment confiscated included editing equipment, microphones, cameras, computers, Internet broadcasting equipment and money.
The official said national security agents also seized documents, and handwritten notes including “students on strike during exams,” and “the most important trials of December.” Student supporters of Morsi were on strike and held protests that frequently turned violent for most of December.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Fahmy’s brother, Adel, said the referral to trial was a “shock.”
“This is a cooked case and they are trying to make it bigger than what it is,” Adel Fahmy said.
Fahmy denied his brother was a Brotherhood member, saying the family had to produce evidence to the prosecutors showing he was not paid by the group, and he did not adhere to the lifestyle of a conservative Muslim as Brotherhood members do. He said his brother has been kept in detention with Islamists in one of the country’s high security prisons “to complete the spectacle.”
The prosecutors’ statement said eight defendants were in custody. Presumably they include the three journalists arrested in December. Two Al-Jazeera reporters were arrested in August while covering a police crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo that killed hundreds. It was not known if they are among the defendants in the case.
In previous crackdowns, a court order had already barred Al-Jazeera local affiliate from broadcasting in Egypt since September, accusing it of endangering national security. The affiliate, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Egypt, has continued to broadcast using its studios in Doha, Qatar, collaborating with freelancers and using amateur videos.
Human rights activists denounced the charges.
“This is an insult to the law,” Gamal Eid, the head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information said. He said there is no evidence in the case and pointed out that the charges come after this month’s passage of a new constitution that authorities touted as “the charter of freedoms,” for its articles guaranteeing a range of rights. “Working in Al-Jazeera doesn’t mean membership in the Brotherhood.”
Hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leaders are now in detention or on trial, mostly on violence-related charges. Morsi himself is on trial.
Eid said that under autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule, there were instances of journalists detained on allegations of terror links. But he said he knows of no instance in which they were actually referred to trial. He said it is also the first time Western journalists are accused on such charges.
Eid said he doesn’t believe the case was part of a planned crackdown, but that among the various agencies of the state, each “is practicing its repression its own way ... We have repressive republics operating in one nation.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelattie said concerns about press freedoms have been “exaggerated.” He said the reporters were operating without permits, and technical reports showed that they had fabricated footage — including video that took place in different times or places made to look current.
“Anyway, these are pure accusations. There is due process in this country,” he said. “It is now in the hands of the judiciary.”