The family of an Egyptian-Canadian journalist imprisoned in Cairo is hoping the “ridiculous” charges he is facing will be dropped when his trial starts this week.
Mohamed Fahmy was working for satellite news broadcaster Al Jazeera English when he was arrested along with two colleagues at the end of December.
After languishing for weeks in a dank, cramped cell at a notorious prison, he was charged last month with several offences, including being a member of a terrorist group — allegations his family and his employer have vehemently decried.
Fahmy is now set to go before an Egyptian court on Thursday as part of a group of 20 individuals who local authorities say worked for the Al Jazeera network. At least twelve of those are being tried in abstentia.
“We’re very worried and tense, but we remain positive,” Fahmy’s brother Adel told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“Mohamed is the furthest from any ideology of a (terrorist) group. Mohamed is just passionate about his job as a journalist. That’s why the charges are completely false and ridiculous.”
The upcoming trial marks what’s believed to be the first time Egypt is prosecuting journalists on terrorism-related charges.
The proceedings also come amidst an extensive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group which Egypt’s military-led government branded a terrorist organization after the July ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi.
The Egyptian government has claimed Al Jazeera is biased towards the Brotherhood — an allegation the Qatar-based broadcaster has denied, saying its journalists were just doing their jobs.
Fahmy, Al Jazeera English’s acting bureau chief in Cairo, is charged with using illegal equipment, broadcasting false news that endangered national security and being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As his case heads to court, his family said the 40-year-old is trying to be optimistic.
“He’s holding up,” his brother said. “But he’s really worried about the case dragging on and taking a long time.”
Fahmy was moved two weeks ago from his original insect-ridden cell to more hospitable quarters in a different prison, where he’s is now being held with his two colleagues, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohamed.
Being together, while also being treated better by prison officials, has helped Fahmy’s morale, his brother said, noting the improvement in conditions was partly due to pressure from Canadian consular officials.
“The Canadian Embassy has done a great job and they’ve been very attentive,” he said, adding that the family hopes political pressure is also being applied by Ottawa to secure his brother’s release.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Fahmy’s case has been raised with Egyptian authorities, while consular staff have been providing assistance to Fahmy and have been in touch with his lawyer.
“Senior Canadian officials have raised Mr. Fahmy’s case with their Egyptian counterparts, requesting a fair and expeditious trial,” said Jean-Bruno Villeneuve. “We communicate regularly with Mr. Fahmy’s family and continue to advocate for his well-being.”
The lack of a strong public statement from Ottawa, however, has caused some observers to criticize the federal government’s silence.
In contrast, the White House has urged the Egyptian government to drop its charges against Fahmy and his colleagues, while the Australian government has been publicly clear it wants the journalists released.
Questions have also been raised about whether Fahmy’s dual citizenship is working against him.
Fahmy’s family has said Canadian officials have warned they were limited in how much they could do due to the man’s dual nationality.
Complicating Fahmy’s case this week is the fact he’s being tried in a large group.
“It’s a big group with a big long laundry list of charges,” said University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani, a keen observer of Middle-Eastern politics. “If any one person is complicit in part of this wide net that’s being thrown out, that’ll be too bad for the people rounded up.”
Momani expected Thursday’s session to involve a listing of charges and said Fahmy’s family needed to brace for the possibility of a drawn-out proceeding that could last a month or more.
But, she noted, the outcome of the case could go either way.
“This is not good PR for the Egyptian people or the Egyptian government,” she said. “There’s a real challenge here with them being so dependent on tourism.”
The case against Fahmy and his colleagues could simply be dropped — after the court cites a lack of evidence, for example — as the entire proceedings would have already served the purpose of instilling fear among those trying to report objectively in the country, Momani said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they just want to release them and move on,” she said. “But the damage has been done in terms of scaring off journalists from doing their job.”
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.