Jailed Al-Jazeera reporters plead for release in Egypt

Al-Jazeera English producer Baher Mohamed, center left, bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, center, and correspondent Peter Greste, second right, appear in court along with several other defendants during their trial on terror charges, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 31, 2014. AP Photo/Heba Elkholy, El Shorouk

CAIRO - Al Jazeera English journalists, imprisoned now for over three months by Egyptian authorities, once again had their day in court.

In the fourth session of their trial correspondent Peter Greste, Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and producer Baher Mohammed pleaded with the judge to release them on bail. Their request was denied.

In the Egyptian legal system defendants appear in court inside a cage. But today Judge Mohammed Nagi Shehata, in a highly unusual move, allowed the accused out from behind the bars to stand before his bench and directly address the court.

"The idea that I could have an association with the Muslim Brotherhood is frankly preposterous," said Greste. He told the judge, "Our only desire at this point is to continue to fight and clear our names from outside of prison."

Fahmy mounted an impassioned defense on behalf of himself and his colleagues, defending their work as journalists. Greste spoke of his decades-long career as an award-winning foreign correspondent. Mohammed talked of his children and his pregnant wife, and how much he would like to be present for the birth of his next child.

With such direct and emotional testimony from the defendants - a rarity in an Egyptian trial - the courtroom was electric with anticipation that the journalists could be released on bail today. Fahmy even called out to his brother, asking if the family had brought bail money with them.

But their hope of imminent release was not to be. After a recess lasting about thirty minutes the judge re-entered the courtroom. Wearing a pair of large dark sunglasses, he ordered their continued imprisonment as the case goes on.

The prosecution accuses the journalists of fabricating news reports and supporting terrorist groups. Pro-government media refers to them as the "Marriott Cell" after the central Cairo hotel in which they were arrested.

But the testimonies of prosecution witnesses over the last few sessions have hardly been convincing. Pieces of equipment commonly used by broadcast journalists, such as cameras and tripods, have been paraded in front of the court as if they were bloodied murder weapons. State security officers who have testified claim that the Al-Jazeera Arabic network is editorially biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood (now branded a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government) and that their mere employment by that network constitutes support for terrorism. But the journalists work for Al-Jazeera English, an editorially separate operation, and a distinction the government doesn't seem to get.

The case has drawn international condemnation. Human rights groups have called it a political show trial that demonstrates just how far the Egyptian authorities will go to crack down on dissent.

"The most important thing is freedom of expression," Baher Mohammed said after the journalists were again locked up inside their defendants' cage. "We are defending freedom of expression."

  • Alex Ortiz

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