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Al Jazeera journalists make first court appearance in Egypt

Three Al Jazeera English journalists charged with running a terrorist cell out of a luxurious Cairo hotel appeared in court for the first time Thursday, offering during two recesses detailed descriptions of their 54 days in jail, saying that they’d been denied outside information and allowed only limited exercise and that the prison system has become a breeding ground for militants.

No details about the case against them were presented in court, and the proceeding was adjourned until March 5. But the three journalists were able to shout their observations on Egypt’s opaque prison system to other reporters in the room. Court officials made no effort to block the communications as long as court was not in session.

The journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed, have been held since Dec. 29, when security forces raided their offices in the Marriott hotel and charged them with putting out false information about Egypt and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi rose to power. The group has since been declared a terrorist organization.

The case has raised fears that the military-backed government that replaced Morsi is leading a crackdown on press freedoms, spurring international protests against the Al Jazeera journalists’ detention. But many Egyptians welcomed the charges, believing Al Jazeera favored the Brotherhood and that its coverage spurred instability.

The three journalists said they had not been tortured while in prison, but four university students charged with giving them false information who also appeared Thursday said they’d been abused in jail – beaten, given electric shocks and burned with cigarettes. One said he had never met his lawyer.

Khalid Mohammed, 21, one of the students, said he had been blindfolded for three days and that guards had pressed burning cigarettes into his head. He also pointed to his thighs to show where he had been beaten.

“We were hanged, tortured and electrocuted and deprived of food for three days at the State Security office,” said another of the students, Shadi Abdel Hamid, 23.

The journalists said that while they had not been physically mistreated, the prison regimen – allowing them just one hour of exercise a day, preventing them often from knowing what time it was and receiving little outside news – had taken a toll.

“Psychologically it is unbearable,” said Fahmy, a well known author who’s worked previously for CNN and the BBC.

The journalists described a judicial system that is creating militants. In the Scorpion section of Tora prison, a facility reserved for Egypt’s worst criminals, prisoners are on a 15-day hunger strike, the journalists said.

Fahmy and Mohammed had been held in Scorpion, where they were deprived a bed and at times food, until earlier this month when they were moved to another part of the prison and now share a cell with Greste. The three said they are held alongside Morsi’s prime minister and the former head of Parliament, who were arrested after Morsi’s July 3 ouster.

Tora prison once held former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned Feb. 11, 2011, after 18 days of raucous and violent street protests.

The students reported that they are being held in solitary confinement at Tora. In all, 20 people have been charged, some in absentia, in the case, which authorities here refer to as the “Marriott terror cell.”

The journalists said they had yet to see the evidence against them. The government has alleged that computer experts found that the journalists were purposely manipulating news videos they had obtained in the course of their reporting.

“I think they are confusing fabricating with editing,” Fahmy said.

Earlier this month, the Egyptian television channel Tahrir released a 20-minute video of the journalists’ arrest and initial interrogation, which included dramatic music playing over the items found in the hotel, which included computers, cameras and cables. The journalists said they knew of the video’s release and called it a violation of their rights.

Word that international protests were held on their behalf buoyed their spirits, the journalists said.

“If there is justice in the Egyptian courts, we will be free soon,” Greste said.

The judge, Mohammed Nagy, had little patience for the lawyers, who at times bickered over who was representing whom. And he rejected their appeal for the journalists’ release pending a trial. The defendants only spoke to the judge to confirm their lawyers and to deny the charges against them.

There were no translation services for Greste, leaving Fahmy to translate the proceeding. Fahmy’s and Mohammed’s families were not allowed inside the proceeding, while Greste’s brother, Andrew, was admonished for trying to communicate with his brother by holding up a sign.

The difference in how the Australian and Canadian embassies treated the case was evident, as the former escorted the family in while the Canadians left Fahmy’s parents and wife outside. Asked for an explanation, a Canadian official told McClatchy, “This is Egypt.”

Outside, Mohammed’s wife, Jehan Mohammed, waited with her two children, ages 3 and 2, during the two-hour proceeding. Mohammed learned his wife is expecting their third child during her first visit with him, she said.

“I tell the children he is at work so he can buy them new toys,” she said. “They are angry. They said they don’t want him to go to work anymore.”