Egyptian court lets Al Jazeera journalists speak but not go free


McClatchy Washington Bureau

An Egyptian court held its fourth session Monday in the criminal case against three Al Jazeera journalists accused of fabricating news and running a terror cell on behalf of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. But when the prosecution failed for the third time to provide the key video evidence against the journalists, the judge instead dramatically entertained bail for the reporters, who have been held since Dec. 29.

In the end, bail was _ again _ denied. But the judge’s decision to let the defendants address the court directly was unprecedented in the Egyptian judicial system, even if it did not lead to their provisional release.

Why the judge gave all signs that he saw the limits of the prosecution’s case against the three, only to deny them bail, was not immediately clear. The judge, Mohammed Nagy, has been under increasing pressure from both local news media and the country’s interim president, Adly Mansour, to free the journalists, one of whom is Australian and another a dual Canadian-Egyptian national.

One, Mohammed Fadel Fahmy, the dual national and the Cairo bureau chief for the English-language service of the satellite news channel, had called it “the make or break day of the trial.” In the end, though, the proceeding turned into the biggest letdown of the case so far.

The prosecutor has charged that Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and an Egyptian cameraman, Baher Mohammed, worked with student protesters to purposely falsify video reports on the harsh government crackdown that followed the ouster July 3 of President Mohammed Morsi. The charges claim that the Al Jazeera staff operated a “terror cell” out of their makeshift offices in Cairo’s luxurious Marriott Hotel and that their reports were intended to hurt Egypt’s image.

But with no video screens set up, it became clear the prosecution would not present its case. With that, the defendants’ lawyers asked the judge to release the journalists on bail, even though he’d denied bail a week ago at the third session. It was a formality; judges rarely overrule themselves.

Then something unusual happened.

Telling the defendants he wanted “to let them tell their concerns,” he ordered them out of the cage that holds defendants and to stand freely before his bench. One by one, they took the microphone, their handcuffs hanging off their wrists, and made their case. When another defendant was talking, the others, each wearing white prison garb, instinctively put their hands behind their backs.

Fahmy said that the prosecution has photos of him drinking alcohol, which he noted no good member of the Muslim Brotherhood would do. “Have you heard of a terrorist who drinks alcohol?” Fahmy asked the judge.

Greste, a Christian, said the accusations that he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood were “preposterous.” He pointed out that he had been in Egypt only two weeks before his arrest, hardly enough time to form links with the secretive Brotherhood.

Cameraman Mohammed noted that his wife was pregnant and his two young children cry for him.

“Our only desire is to fight to clear our names outside prison,” Greste pleaded.

Five of the students charged with them said they had no idea why they are part of the case, having never met the defendants until they were all standing in the same cage in Nagy’s courtroom. They, rather than asking for bail, asked the judge for medical treatment and visits from their families.

“Scorpion prison in Egypt’s Guantanamo Bay,” read the T-shirt of one of them, Suhaib Saeed, a reference to the section of Tora prison where he is held, reserved for Egypt’s most dangerous criminals.

The judge patiently listened and acknowledged their concerns. “Sure, sure, sure,” he kept repeating as the defendants made their case. The courtroom sat silent. The session lasted two hours, highly unusual in a system where judges usually dismiss immediately any request that they reconsider an earlier ruling.

In the context _ Egyptian President Mansour had written Greste’s and Fahmy’s families promising swift justice and showing empathy to their case _ bail seemed likely. Egyptian talk show hosts, who once said the three deserved to be convicted simply for working for Al Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar, which supported the Morsi presidency, have now warmed to releasing them on bail.

The judge adjourned to consider bail. The correspondents smiled from the cage. But the mood quickly changed when the judge returned 20 minutes later. Donning sunglasses, he announced that the defendants would remain in prison. He set the next hearing for April 10.

He also ordered the police who’d failed to bring the video evidence to court to be arrested.

Fahmy shook his head in disbelief.

“He’s not master of his own game,” he shouted to reporters, referring to the judge.

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