, CAIRO, June 23 A court is to deliver its verdict Monday in the trial of Al Jazeera journalists accused of aiding Egypt’s blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood in a case that has sparked an international outcry.
Since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the authorities have been incensed by the Qatari network’s coverage of their deadly crackdown on his supporters.
They consider Al Jazeera as the voice of Qatar, and accuse Doha of backing Morsi’s Brotherhood, while the emirate openly denounces the repression of the Islamist movement’s supporters which has killed more than 1,400 people.
Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed, who work for Al Jazeera English, have been tried with 17 others on charges of “spreading false news” and having Brotherhood links.
The three have been detained for nearly six months, along with six others.
Al-Jazeera says only nine of the 20 defendants are on its staff, including two foreign reporters who are abroad. A Dutch journalist, who is not working with the channel, is also among the defendants.
Sixteen are Egyptians accused of belonging to the Brotherhood, which the military-installed government designated a “terrorist organisation” in December.
The four foreigners are also alleged to have collaborated with and assisted their Egyptian co-defendants by providing media material, as well as editing and broadcasting it.
The authorities also say the accused journalists were operating in Egypt without valid accreditation.
“On June 23, the entire world will be watching Egypt to see whether they uphold the values of press freedom,” Al Jazeera said.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry also called for freedom of the press to be upheld in Egypt as he made a surprise visit to Cairo.
– ‘Reporting, not supporting’ –
Kerry said he discussed with Egyptian officials “the essential role of a vibrant civil society, free press, rule of law and due process in a democracy”.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Monday he told Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al Sisi it would be a public relations coup if Greste avoids a severe sentence.
“I assured him, as a former journalist myself, that Peter Greste would have been reporting the Muslim Brotherhood, not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood,” Abbott, who spoke to Sisi over the weekend, told the Seven Network.
Sisi, who was sworn in as president on June 8, has said he intends to return Egypt to stability rather than encourage democratic reforms.
Prosecutors have demanded the maximum penalty for all defendants. The 16 Egyptians could be jailed for 25 years, while the foreigners could get 15 years, their lawyers say.
Since the trial began on February 20, rights groups have expressed concerns over media restrictions in Egypt.
“What the Egyptian authorities are doing is vindictive persecution of journalists for merely doing their jobs,” said Amnesty International.
During the hearings the defendants have denounced the trial as “unfair and political”, charging that evidence had been “fabricated”.
Prosecutors showed video from a tourism report not even produced by Al-Jazeera, as well as images and audio recordings in which the defendants are alleged to have falsely portrayed a “civil war”.
Greste and Fahmy were arrested in a hotel room in Cairo on December 29 after the channel’s office was raided by police.
Greste formerly worked with the BBC and won the 2011 Peabody Award for a documentary on Somalia.
Fahmy, the Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English who previously worked with CNN, has no known Brotherhood ties.
Monday’s expected rulings come nearly a week after authorities released Abdullah Elshamy, another Jazeera journalist who works for the network’s main Arabic channel.