Al-Jazeera journalists facing trial in Egypt plead not guilty

BY Sarah Sheffer  February 20, 2014 at 10:57 AM EST
Demonstrators protest outside the Egyptian embassy in London Wednesday to demand the immediate release of detained journalists in Egypt. Photo by Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators protest outside the Egyptian embassy in London Wednesday to demand the immediate release of detained journalists in Egypt. Photo by Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Three Al-Jazeera journalists facing trial in Egypt pleaded not guilty on Thursday to terrorism-related charges. The high-profile case was adjourned until March 5 after the 40-minute hearing.

The journalists have been held in Cairo’s maximum security Torah Prison, facing charges including “joining a terrorist organization, aiding a terrorist organization and threatening national security.” The Egyptian government arrested the men in December for reporting seen as bias toward the now-illegal Muslim Brotherhood.

Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohammed could face five to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

The journalists’ arrests have garnered international condemnation from rights groups who say Egypt’s transitional military government is stifling press freedoms.

“Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job. The prosecution of these journalists for speaking with Muslim Brotherhood members, coming after the prosecution of protesters and academics, shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Joe Stork.

But the Egyptian government claims international news networks have misrepresented their crackdown on supporters of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and secular anti-military protesters.

Father of detained journalist Mohamed Fahmy, acting Al-Jazeera bureau chief, said the charges are baseless.

“From my point of view, this trial is politicized. My son and his co-workers are good patriots and they work professionally,” Mahmoud Fahmy told the Associated Press.

Greste’s brother said he hopes his brother is mentally prepared for what is to come.

“Obviously, we are all hopeful that he will be released very soon. But he understands that if he gets his hopes up, and has any kind of expectations about today and that they don’t go his way, then it’s going to be extremely tough for him to get himself of that hole emotionally. So he has been prepared for today but he is also prepared for an outcome that perhaps we don’t want,” Andrew Greste told journalists.

Al-Jazeera has demanded the immediate release of its staff members, condemning the charges. The Qatar-based network says the journalists were only doing their jobs.

The three men are among 20 journalists facing similar charges in Egypt. Those not present in court will be tried in absentia.