Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy appeared in court Thursday and pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring with the banned Muslim Brotherhood to tarnish Egypt’s international reputation.
During the 40-minute court appearance, Mr. Fahmy and his colleague, Australian reporter Peter Greste, shouted from the defendants’ cage that their imprisonment is “psychologically unbearable.” The men said they were being denied all reading material, allowed only one hour a day outside their cells and that their prison visits are monitored, according to a report by Associated Press.
Mr. Fahmy, Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera’s English-language network, was seized with Mr. Greste and producer Baher Mohamed, from their upscale hotel room on Dec. 29. They have been in prison ever since.
They are charged with joining a terrorist organization and broadcasting “misleading” or “manufactured” news aimed at harming Egypt’s image. A total of 20 people are included in the case, but only eight were present in the court on Thursday.
After a more than six-hour delay, the court formally filed charges against the accused, refused bail for the eight and adjourned the case until March 5.
Prior to Mr. Fahmy’s outburst in court, one of his brothers, Abel, said Mohamed was “in a good morale” and was “looking forward to the trial.”
But after the brief hearing, Mr. Fahmy’s lawyer told him to expect the case to be postponed several times. “We sat with the lawyer after the trial was over,” another brother, Sharif, told The Globe and Mail.
“The lawyer came along with us and informed [Mohamed] that things in Egypt take a long time and he should keep in mind that this kind of trial can go on for a couple of months.” Sharif Fahmy said.
The ordeal has been hard on the tight-knit Fahmy family who immigrated to Canada from Egypt about 20 years ago.
Mr. Fahmy’s parents, Fadel and Wafaa, travelled from their home in Montreal to be with their son as he goes through the Egyptian court system. They had hoped to be able to attend the Thursday hearing, along with Sharif and Abel. But, after sitting for hours in the Cairo sun, they were informed that family members were not allowed.
“They told us we do not have the proper paperwork,” said Sharif Fahmy. “When we asked what this paperwork was, no one gave us clear information about what kind of paperwork was needed. Even the lawyer himself said there is no paperwork for attending a trial that your brother or your son was charged in.”
The trial was in a makeshift court in a police academy on the edge of the massive Tora Prison complex. More than 80 people, including journalists, diplomats and relatives of the accused, were forced to wait on the edge of a heavily trafficked entrance.
Canadian and Australian diplomats were repeatedly turned away from the court’s entrance. As the hours wore on, they abandoned their parked cars and joined journalists sitting on the curb. They were, however, eventually allowed in, along with the waiting journalists.
There was speculation the delay was a ruse aimed at discouraging journalists from attending the long-anticipated trial. Several spoke of their circuitous journeys to the court, after being given misdirection by police officers manning roadblocks surrounding the prison complex.
One reporter was sent in error to the entrance used only by judges and lawyers, half a kilometre away from the correct gate. When she asked for clearer directions, the officer told her: “I can’t speak to you. You’re a foreigner.”
The trial is seen as a test case for Egypt’s treatment of journalists, both foreign and national.
Heather Allen, head of news gathering for Al Jazeera television in Doha, told The Globe and Mail that the case is about more than the Al Jazeera staff. “It’s the whole Egyptian press freedom thing,” she said. “There are so many journalists locked up in Egypt.”
She referred to the current climate for the press in Egypt as “the closing down of alternative voices.”
The arrest of the Al Jazeera journalists has drawn international condemnation and prompted widespread demands for their release.
But Canada has not joined journalists groups and world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama in calling for their release. Sharif Fahmy said the Canadian embassy staff has explained that, because his bother is also an Egyptian citizen, their hands are tied.
The Conservative government was advised last year by senior bureaucrats to consider limiting consular assistance for Canadians, who have dual citizenship, who travel on a foreign passport, or who have lived outside the country for a long period of time.
Carol Berger is freelance writer for The Globe and Mail.