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Protesters, human rights groups demand release of Al-Jazeera journalists on trial in Egypt

March 5, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Egypt, the trial of three Al-Jazeera journalists, which has sparked a global outcry by press freedom advocates, resumed today.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tanks guarded the fortified entrances of Cairo’s Tora prison today.

Inside, Al-Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and Peter Greste, wearing white prison uniforms, stood in the courtroom’s defendant cage. They and other Al-Jazeera journalists are accused of endangering Egyptian national security by assisting a — quote — “terrorist organization,” namely, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The military-backed government banned the group after ousting President Mohammed Morsi in July. Al-Jazeera maintains the charges are — quote — “absurd, baseless and false,” as do the journalists’ relatives who spoke after the hearing.

ASSEM MOHAMED, Brother of Defendant (through interpreter): The accusations directed towards them are far from the truth. None of them are affiliated to any political party, movement, or the Muslim Brotherhood. They use the same equipment used by all other channels. If they have a problem with Al-Jazeera, the journalists have nothing to do with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The defendants’ lawyer claimed progress based on the way the hearing went.

FARAG FATHY, Defense Lawyer (through interpreter): Today, the session was to hear witness testimonies. The most important of these was the national security officer who is in charge of investigating the journalists. From the questions, it can be said that the accusations directed towards these three defendants have completely collapsed.

JEFFREY BROWN: The trial has sparked outrage among human rights groups, journalistic organizations and others. Protesters have demonstrated at Egyptian consulates in Mexico City, Istanbul, and elsewhere, demanding the journalists’ release.

And, in February, the Obama administration urged Egypt to drop the charges.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: The government’s targeting of journalists and others on questionable claims is wrong, and it demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection — protection of basic rights and freedoms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Al-Jazeera has also spearheaded an online campaign with Twitter photos of hundreds of people with their mouths taped shut and the hashtag #freeajstaff.

The International Press Institute says the case highlights growing dangers to journalists worldwide. In all, 119 members of the press died while on assignment in 2013. No place was more deadly than Syria, where the ongoing civil war claimed the lives of 16 journalists last year.