CAIRO – Three imprisoned Al-Jazeera English journalists, including an Egyptian-Canadian, directly asked the judge on Monday to release them, insisting the terrorism charges against them were unfounded.
The judge denied the request for bail by Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed during the fourth hearing in the trial that opened on Feb. 20.
The trial marks the first time journalists have been charged with terrorism-related offences in Egypt, drawing international criticism.
The three, along 17 others, face terrorism-related charges based on the Egyptian authorities’ accusations that they provided a platform to the Muslim Brotherhood group of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, which the government has declared a terrorist organization.
Their defenders say they were just doing their job as journalists.
Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed spoke after the judge took the unusual move of allowing all the defendants out of the cage, which serves as the dock in Egyptian trials, to approach the bench and address him directly with requests.
Besides the three journalists, five other defendants were in court Monday, with the rest being tried in absentia.
Fahmy, who had suffered from a fractured arm before his arrest, had asked to be released to receive better private medical attention after his injury deteriorated because of harsh conditions in prison.
“I ask for acquittal,” demanded Fahmy, denying accusations that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He told the judge he was an alcohol-drinking liberal who lived abroad for a long time, and added: “Have you ever heard of a (Muslim) terrorist that drinks alcohol?”
Greste told the judge, Mohammed Nagi Shehata, that the idea that he could have an association with the Muslim Brotherhood was “frankly preposterous.”
He said that he was an award-winning journalist with years of experience and that he constitutes no threat to anybody in Egypt, adding he had been in the country only two weeks before his arrest.
“Our only desire at this point is to continue to fight and clear our names from outside of prison,” he said.
Mohammed told the judge “to have mercy on us,” adding that his wife was pregnant and he wanted to be there with her.
The three were arrested on Dec. 29 from their hotel room in Cairo, where they worked after Al-Jazeera’s office was repeatedly raided after Morsi’s ouster in the summer. The government accuses the station of being biased to Morsi and his group, a charge the Doha-based station denies.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has said he’s met with his Egyptian counterpart to discuss Fahmy’s case. Canadian officials have told Fahmy’s family however, that his dual citizenship has placed limits on how much they can do.
Fahmy’s family moved to Canada in 1991. He lived in Montreal and Vancouver for years before eventually moving abroad for work, which included covering stories for the New York Times and CNN.
Of the other 17 defendants, six are employed by Al-Jazeera, according to the network. The rest are mostly Brotherhood supporters who were arrested separately, including the son of prominent Brotherhood leader Mohammed el-Beltagy.
Also among the defendants is a Dutch journalist who freelances for a number of Dutch media and who visited Fahmy at the hotel. She fled the country after she found out her name was on the list of defendants.
As they addressed the judge Monday, some of the other five other defendants in court spoke of abuse and torture during interrogation. One student said his teeth fell out from a beating. Another appeared with a sling around his arm in court.
Their lawyer, Shaaban Said, asked his clients be examined, demanding a forensic report instead of the quick medical examination that they underwent in prison, which found no proof of the torture.
“I have no idea why I am in this case. I was arrested on my way to visit a friend,” said a third defendant, Ahmed Abdel-Azim.
One of the five, Khaled Mohammed, said he and his colleagues have been on hunger strike for three days but the prison authorities refused to record their protest.
The judge did not accept the requests for release or bail. He ordered forensic examination of the defendants, and adjourned the session until April 10.
In Monday’s session, the judge and lawyers were supposed to review videos that police claim show that the defendants altered footage in a way that falsified news and threatened Egypt’s national security. But without explanation, police did not set up the equipment in the courtroom to view the evidence.
In an unusual step, the judge issued an arrest warrant for the police officer who had been due to set it up.
The journalists’ arrests came only days after Egypt’s military-backed government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. That decision appeared to be largely based on bombings that a Sinai militant group has claimed responsibility for.
The Brotherhood denies it practices or advocates violence, and says it only pursues protests against authorities. But the protests have grown increasingly violent with regular clashes between the police and Morsi supporters.
Since Morsi’s ouster by the military, Egypt has seen a heavy crackdown on his supporters, with several thousand detained and hundreds killed in political violence.
With files from The Canadian Press