Prosecutors demanded the heaviest possible punishment for three Al Jazeera English journalists on trial in Egypt after accusing them of trying to damage the country's reputation, including by reporting on sexual violence.
Mohamed Barakat, the lead prosecution lawyer, made the comments today during his closing remarks at the trial’s 11th hearing. The maximum possible penalty varies by defendant from seven to 15 years in jail, their family members told VICE News.
Barakat made a number of accusations against the trio — Australian reporter Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, and local producer Baher Mohammed — including that they filmed a protest against then-president Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on June 30, 2013 from angles that made it look poorly attended. The military removed Morsi from power days later and installed Egypt’s current government.
He also said that Al Jazeera's reporting on horrific mass sexual assaults and rapes in Tahrir Square during the run up to Morsi’s ouster was designed to show Egypt in a bad light. Unlike the three defendants, none of those who actually perpetrated the assaults are currently on trial or in jail.
All three of the accused, who have been held since December and are being tried on charges including doctoring video footage, muddying Egypt’s reputation, and aiding a terrorist organization, were not even in Egypt at the time that these incidents supposedly took place, according to Al Jazeera.
Other allegations included using videos of clashes between police and protesters in reports in an attempt to show “the fall of the Egyptian state” and having links with the brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist organization late last year.
Journalists were refused entry to the courtroom for a time and were not able to observe the beginning of proceedings, but Fahmy’s brother Adel told members of the press that the prosecution had begun with a misquoted passage from the Koran (which the judge corrected) then claimed that Al Jazeera was responsible for the “fall” of governments in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen and said that both the Qatari network and the brotherhood wish to ruin Egypt.
Defense lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr, who represents Fahmy, also made his closing statement today, arguing that his clients had done nothing wrong and that the prosecution had disregarded procedure, tampered with evidence, and cherry picked video footage shown in court to omit anti-Brotherhood protests and the like.
He added that some of its key witnesses, a technical committee of audio-visual experts, were unreliable following testimony at the previous hearing held on Sunday.
Prosecuting lawyers built their case against the journalists around written statements from the committee 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 representatives were not able to point to a single instance where it had happened, 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 the footage they analyzed was actually 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.
“This trial should not be happening in the first place,” Bakr said. He added that by end of proceedings it would be apparent who really harmed Egypt's reputation: the defendants or the trial itself, and concluded his remarks to applause from the court room. The lawyer representing Greste and Mohammed also made his final statement.
The three journalists are also being tried alongside several Egyptian students who were arrested separately, even though there is no clear connection between the two groups. The students’ defense team will make final statements at the next court session, which is scheduled for May 16.
The Al Jazeera employees themselves also condemned the allegations and evidence levelled against them.
“The prosecution shows a clear vendetta against Al Jazeera and not us,” Fahmy shouted from the defendants’ cage during a break in proceedings. “We are here in prison because the prosecutor thinks Al Jazeera destroyed Iraq.”
“Everything about the trial is a sham,” he added. “If we are judged on evidence, we will be set free.”
Greste said, “They’re speaking in generalizations, the prosecutor hasn’t presented a single bit of evidence.”
In previous sessions, the court has been shown a series of images, video, and audio clips without context, supposedly as evidence of the defendants’ guilt. It has included material from other news networks, footage of trotting donkeys and horses from a Sky News Arabia program about animal hospitals, and a tinny recording of the Gotye hit song “Somebody That I Used To Know.”
The trial has been condemned by much of the international community as an attack on press freedom. However, many Egyptians do see Al Jazeera as having worked to undermine their country.
This is partly a result of the perception that Qatar, where Al Jazeera is headquartered, backed Morsi and the brotherhood because it poured billions of dollars into government coffers while he was in power. There is also a broad perception that the network’s coverage of the current administration was overtly negative.
An Egyptian 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.
According to the Interior Ministry, a freelance journalist was also arrested in coastal Port Said last week for allegedly sending video footage to Mubasher Misr.
Image via Reuters/Asmaa Waguih
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