A key part of the prosecution case against three Al Jazeera journalists being tried in Egypt was undermined in a hearing today when witnesses contradicted previously submitted written testimony.
The three Al Jazeera English employees — Australian reporter Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Cairo Bureau Chief Mohammed Fahmy, and local producer Baher Mohammed — have been held since December and are being tried on charges including doctoring video footage, muddying Egypt’s reputation, and aiding a terrorist organization.
They are being tried alongside several Egyptian students who were arrested separately, although the connection between the two groups is unclear.
Prosecuting lawyers built their case against the journalists around written statements from a technical committee of audio-visual experts alleging that the Al Jazeera team had pieced together false news reports in order to damage Egypt.
However, during cross-examination by defense lawyers, the three committee members were not able to point to a single instance where it had happened, and said they did not remember specific details and referred back to reports.
Additionally, all three said that because they were only technical experts, they couldn’t say whether they footage they analyzed actually was a threat to national security.
One of the experts said the videos they analyzed had changed from when he first saw it. That, the defense team said, was enough to prove it had been tampered with.
The defendants themselves reacted angrily.
“It’s very evident that the witnesses on the technical committee were told exactly what to say by the prosecutors,” Fahmy shouted to assembled journalists during a break in proceedings from defendants' cage. “It’s clear that testimonies have nothing to do with the technical job of looking for editing… If anyone has fabricated anything in this case, it’s the prosecutor."
Greste added that these inconsistencies showed the trial was politically motivated.
“There are major inconsistencies in the prosecution case, which suggests the they have been manufactured for political not legal reasons. We’re being held hostage in a political debacle between Egypt and Qatar.”
The trial has now been adjourned until June 5 at which point the prosecution is expected to make its closing statements. They were also denied bail today.
In the video above, filmed by Democracy Now journalist Sharif Kouddous, audio evidence is played in the courtroom on April 22.
In previous sessions, a mobile phone apparently belonging to Fahmy with its content in Arabic was presented as evidence against Greste, even though he doesn't speak the language.
“My mobile was shown in evidence as Peter’s phone, it shows you the level of inefficiencies,” Fahmy said. The phone was in Arabic, which Greste does not speak.
In previous sessions, prosecution lawyers presented a series of images, video, and audio clips without context as evidence of the defendants’ guilt, including material from other news networks, including the BBC and VOA and perhaps most bizarre, footage of trotting donkeys and horses from a Sky News Arabia program about animal hospitals.
Other supposed evidence has included muffled audio recordings that even the judge complained he couldn’t understand, a tiny recording of the Gotye hit song “Somebody That I Used To Know” from Fahmy's phone and of a garbled voice telling jokes, then singing, which was played to incredulous laughter from the assembled members of the press. Al Jazeera content has been shown too.
Some footage was of routine interviews with Islamists. Other pieces of footage, however, were reports on sheep farming and football.
Because the footage and audio recordings were presented without comment by the prosecution, it was not always clear how it was supposed to incriminate the accused.
The journalists are being held together in a small cell and have access to reading material, however Fahmy has complained that he needs medical treatment for a shoulder injury he sustained prior to his arrest.
During the last court session, he said that a specialist had told him he would require an operation to repair the damage.
“He’s OK, but the arm is the main thing," Fahmy's brother Adel told VICE News. "He’s very worried about it, as we all are. Without surgery, it will not get better. It may be chronic, doctors say.”
Despite the prosecution’s weak case, many Egyptians do see Al Jazeera as having worked to undermine their country.
This is partly a result of the perception that Qatar backs Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood because the tiny gulf state pumped billions of dollars into government coffers while he was in power. There is also a broad perception that the network’s coverage of the new military-backed government was overtly negative.
An Egyptian administrative court banned Al Jazeera’s Egyptian channel Mubasher Misr, along with three other channels, on those grounds in September 2013.
Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdullah Elshamy, is also currently behind bars in Egypt. He has been held without charge since August 2013 and has been on hunger strike since mid-January.
Meanwhile, a freelance journalist was arrested in coastal Port Said for allegedly sending video footage to Mubasher Misr, the Interior Ministry said on Friday.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck