Egypt to put Al Jazeera journalists on trial

SHADIA NASRALLA
Last updated 06:13 30/01/2014

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Egypt will put an Australian, two Britons and a Dutchwoman on trial for aiding 16 Egyptians belonging to a "terrorist organisation", the public prosecutor said on Wednesday (local time), describing the four as Al Jazeera correspondents.

According to the website of the Qatar-based television network, three of its journalists, Peter Greste, an Australian, Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian national, and Baher Mohamed were detained in Cairo on December 29. They have not been released.

The identities of the two Britons and the Dutchwoman mentioned by the prosecutor were not immediately clear. The Dutch embassy declined to comment. The British embassy said it was aware of the report and was seeking more information.

In a statement, the prosecutor said the four had published "lies" that harmed the national interest and had supplied money, equipment and information to the 16 Egyptians. The foreigners were also accused of using unlicensed broadcasting equipment.

The 16 Egyptians are to face trial for belonging to a "terrorist organisation", an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been protesting against the government since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July.

The government has declared the Brotherhood a "terrorist group". The Brotherhood says it is a peaceful organisation.

Both state and private Egyptian media have been whipping up anti-Brotherhood sentiment, suggesting anyone associated with the group is a traitor and a threat to national security.

A severe crackdown on dissent has raised questions over Egypt's democratic credentials three years after an uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes of greater freedoms.

Adel Fahmy, the brother of Al Jazeera producer Mohamed Fahmy, voiced dismay at the prosecutor's charges.

"They just want to magnify this case, for no reason, maybe for political interests, nothing makes sense any more," he said.

"Mohamed is the furthest in the world from being related to a terrorist group or the Muslim Brotherhood."

Egyptian media have referred to those charged in the Al Jazeera case as "The Marriott Cell" because the journalists worked out of that Cairo hotel.

Al Jazeera's Cairo offices have been closed since July 3 when security forces raided them hours after the army ousted Morsi following mass protests against his rule.

Qatar was a strong financial backer of Egypt during Morsi's year in power and the Gulf Arab state has vehemently criticised his overthrow and the ensuing crackdown on the Brotherhood.

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The charges against the journalists are likely to further strain ties between Doha and Cairo.

Human rights groups have condemned the arrests of journalists in Egypt.

"There is a concerted effort under way to squeeze out any independent observers, from activists to journalists to non-governmental organisations," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa programme, said last week.

In December a prosecutor ordered the arrest of an Egyptian man whose 15-year-old son was detained for owning a ruler bearing a symbol associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

- Reuters

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