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Defense Lawyers Abruptly Quit in Egypt's Adjourned Al Jazeera Trial

The prosecution demanded $170,000 for evidence and three lawyers quit in the first hearing of three Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo.
Photo via AP

The trial of three Al Jazeera journalists being held in Egypt has been adjourned until May 22 after today’s hearing which saw defense lawyers quit the case and the prosecution demand $170,000 from the legal team representing the trio to see evidence against their clients.

The three Al Jazeera employees — Canadian-Egyptian Cairo Bureau Chief Mohammed Fahmy, Australian reporter Peter Greste, and Baher Mohammed, a local producer — are on trial for charges including doctoring film footage, besmirching Egypt’s reputation, and aiding a terrorist organization. The latter refers to deposed president Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist group on Christmas Day 2013. The journalists and their employer all deny the charges.


Three of the lawyers representing Greste and Mohammed, announced to the judge that they would be stepping down and criticized the Qatar-based network. "The Al Jazeera channel is offending Egypt," said the duo's lead lawyer Farag Fathy Farag, according to the Associated Press. He went on to accuse it of falsely attributing comments to him in a broadcast.

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Farag also said that Al Jazeera was prioritizing muddying Egypt's reputation over freeing its staff, according to Agence France-Presse. "Al Jazeera is using my clients. I have emails from (the channel) telling me they don't care about the defendants and care about insulting Egypt."

The journalists told reporters in the courtroom that they were concerned that their (now ex-) lawyers' decision to quit would jeopardize their case.

"What the lawyer did makes us look bad! We are very angry with the way this is unfolding!” Fahmy shouted, according to AP.

Farag Fathy Farag, the lawyer for Al Jazeera's Australian correspondent Peter Greste prepares to leave the court as he decided to quit the case during the trial in Cairo, Egypt, today. Photo via AP.

Separately, the prosecution told defense lawyers that they must pay EGP1.2 million ($170,000) to see the evidence it planned to use against the journalists.

Al Jazeera condemned the decision. "There have been many farcical scenes during the previous eight court hearings, and today was another example. It is an affront to justice for the prosecution to attempt charging $170,000 for the defense to see the video evidence against them,” the network said in a statement.


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Al Jazeera added that it is continuing to “do everything possible” to free its employees and that it is “working with a first class legal team to end this injustice.”

All three journalists have been held since December when they were arrested in a hotel room that was being used as a temporary Al Jazeera English bureau. Thirteen members of US Congress recently sent a letter to Egyptian President Adly Mansour calling for the release of the journalists, as well as their colleague Abdullah Elshamy.

Elshamy is an Al Jazeera Arabic reporter who has been held without charge since August 2013 and been on hunger strike since mid-January. He has lost a third of his body weight.

Elshamy’s health is now failing, according to his lawyer and doctor, and his whereabouts are unknown after he was moved by authorities to an undisclosed location. On Wednesday, a video statement recorded before his disappearance was released in which a gaunt-looking Elshamy says he has been denied independent medical check-ups despite repeated requests and has not received any medical care while behind bars.

“This is a record for the history and for the sake of documenting my state and thus if anything happens to me, whatever it is, either my health fails totally, or anything happens to my safety, I hold the Egyptian regime responsible for that,” he continued.


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Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed have been tried alongside five Egyptian students who were arrested separately and are also accused of links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Today another defendant, Khaled Abdel Rahman, attended trial for the first time after his recent arrest.

The prosecution’s case has been somewhat bizarre. Evidence against the accused has included audio recordings — claimed to be of conversations between the students — which were so muffled that even the judge admitted he couldn’t understand them.

Previously, footage shown to the court in an attempt to prove the three journalists’ guilt included trotting donkeys and horses from a Sky News Arabia program about animal hospitals, and part of a BBC documentary on Somalia. Al Jazeera’s material was used too, but an interview about sheep farming was shown alongside interviews with Brotherhood members. In an earlier court appearance, everything found in the defendants' hotel room was presented as evidence.

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The trial has sparked protests, a global social media campaign under the #FreeAJStaff banner, and been criticized by rights groups. The US, UK, and European Union have also called for the trio's release.

Al Jazeera also recently brought a $150 million compensation claim against the Egyptian government. This too annoyed Farag, who said the lawsuit might jeopardize the defense’s case and impact on any sympathetic reaction he might have been able to garner from the court.

Despite the worldwide campaign, many Egyptians do see Al Jazeera as having worked to undermine Egypt. This is partly a result of the perception that Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood. The tiny Gulf state supported Islamists throughout the Middle East, and pumped billions of dollars into Egypt's economy while Morsi was in power. There is also a broad perception that the network, particularly its Egyptian operations, was biased against the new military-backed government.

An Egyptian administrative court banned Al Jazeera’s Egyptian channel Mubasher Misr, along with three other channels, on September 3 2013, saying that they supported Morsi and the Brotherhood. The network has also reported that its broadcasts have been jammed, its offices repeatedly raided, and its staff detained since the former president was removed from power.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck