Torture claim in Egypt trial of Al Jazeera journalists
The trial of Al Jazeera journalists accused of supporting deposed president Mohamed Morsi's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood heard on Wednesday defendant claims of 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 longtime dictator 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 Morsi and his now-banned Brotherhood.
There are 20 defendants, including well-known Australian reporter Peter Greste. Eight of them are in custody, and the rest on the run or abroad. They are accused of supporting the Brotherhood and broadcasting false reports, after police shut down the Cairo offices of Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the network's Egyptian channel, following the military's July 3 overthrow of Morsi.
At Wednesday'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 Mubasher Misr'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".
"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 told AFP before the hearing that his son was innocent and had actually been among the first participants in June 30 protests against Morsi that led to his eventual downfall.
He added that prison authorities have not allowed him to get a needed operation.
During the hearing, a security official told a defence lawyer that Fahmy "works for Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, and I am not a media man to differentiate between the two channels, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr and Al Jazeera English.
"As long as he collaborates with a channel that broadcasts false news and co-operates with the Brotherhood, then he is a member of the Brotherhood."
Another defendant, Soheib Saad, 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's brother Andrew told AFP earlier on Wednesday 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".
The trial was later adjourned to March 24.
Tried in absentia
Greste, winner of the prestigious Peabody award for a documentary on Somalia, 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 Morsi supporters, have been killed in street clashes.
The government has designated the Brotherhood a "terrorist organisation".
Al-Jazeera says only nine of the defendants are on its staff and has denied the charges, while 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.
On Tuesday, 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, 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."
While none of the detainees 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 told AFP. – AFP