Egyptian prosecutor: 'Mercy leads to the drowning of an entire society'

Despite a sustained international outcry, Egypt is plowing ahead with its trial of Al Jazeera journalists it accuses of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Protesters rally in support of Al Jazeera journalists Abdullah Elshamy and Mohammed Sultan, who were detained by Egyptian authorities, who were detained by Egyptian authorities, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, June 1, 2014.

Prosecutors have demanded that three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt face the maximum sentence in a case that has highlighted the country's tenuous state of press freedom.

"Mercy leads to the drowning of an entire society," prosecuting lawyer Mohamed Barakat told the court. He said the journalists should be charged with belonging to or helping the Muslim Brotherhood and conspiring with a group of students to fabricate news reports depicting the country in a state of war.

Al Jazeera English's Cairo bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, was arrested in late December, along with Australian reporter Peter Greste and freelance producer Baher Mohamed. The three are among 20 defendants in a case that has prompted an international outcry over the prosecution of journalists who say they were just doing their jobs. 

According to defense lawyers, the 16 Egyptian defendants face prison terms of up to 25 years, while the four foreigners could be jailed for 15 years.

"This is a vendetta against Al Jazeera... we are hostages in a battle between Qatar and Egypt,” shouted Mr. Fahmy on Thursday, his voice booming through the open courtroom cage in which he and the other defendants are held while being tried.

The decision to push ahead with the case is seen as a proxy battle between Egypt and Qatar, its regional rival and owner of the Al Jazeera network. It is also part of a far-reaching crackdown on political groups and media outlets that disagree with an army-backed government that took power in a military coup last year. On Tuesday, former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was declared the winner of a recent presidential election with 96 percent of the vote.  

Contradictory statements

Journalists were initially barred from Thursday’s hearing, prompting speculation that the judge was trying to limit the flow of information. During a previous hearing, the prosecution’s case appeared to break down when key witnesses contradicted their written statements and were accused of perjury by defense lawyers.

In the closing statement for the prosecution, Mr. Barakat said the journalists and students had used a Cairo hotel as a base from which to manipulate their footage, filling two rooms with "unlawful" equipment. Defense lawyers argued the equipment was standard and that their clients were being prosecuted for simply doing their job. “Filming someone shout ‘down with the president’ does not mean you agree,” said lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr. 

The evidence against the journalists includes footage retrieved from their hard drives showing the Islamist demonstrations which dominated parts of Cairo last summer after the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the since-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Police forcibly dispersed the protesters, killing hundreds.

“That’s the nature of the profession,” said Mr. Abu Bakr. “To bear witness.”

Fahmy told assembled journalists that dozens of prisoners within Tora prison are on hunger strike, including a fourth Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy. Mr. Elshamy has been imprisoned without charge since Aug. 14. His family say he has lost more than a third of his body weight from a 135-day hunger strike to protest his detention. Doctors say he faces kidney and liver failure. He is currently in solitary confinement. 

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