CAIRO (AP) — Three Al-Jazeera journalists pleaded not guilty Thursday and shouted from the dock that their prison conditions are "psychologically unbearable" as they went on trial with several other defendants, on terror charges.
The high-profile case — with journalists charged under anti-terror laws for the first time in Egypt — underlined the tug of war between the military-backed government and the Qatari-based network criticized for its coverage of the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown against his Muslim Brotherhood.
Authorities accuse Al-Jazeera of acting as a platform for Morsi's supporters. The network denies that and says its journalists were only doing their jobs. The Dec. 29 arrest of Al-Jazeera English's acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian; Australian award-winning correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed sparked an outcry from international media, rights groups and journalist advocacy organizations.
Security officials raided their suite and accused them of having unlicensed equipment and setting up a media center for the Brotherhood at a five-star hotel overlooking the Nile River in the upscale district of Zamalek. They also were accused of fabricating footage to show the country in a state of civil strife, harming its reputation.
Authorities later charged them and 17 other people with belonging to and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and threatening national security. Only eight of those charged were in the courtroom on Thursday — the three journalists and five students arrested earlier in December while protesting Morsi's ouster — while the others were being tried in-absentia, including two Britons and a Dutch woman.
Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed wore white jumpsuits and stood in the defendants' cage as they shouted out that they were disconnected from outside world, lacked access to books or newspapers and were allowed only one hour of out of their cell each day.
They said they were allowed a weekly visit by their lawyers and prison officials monitored family visits. Relatives including Fahmy's brother, Adel, said that conditions are much better after they were recently moved from a high-security prison where they were kept in solitary confinement and slept on the floor with no blankets. He said they now are together in a cell and sleep on beds. They also get food and clothes during visits.
"It's physically fine, but psychologically unbearable," Mohammed Fahmy whose arm hung in a sling because of an injury in his shoulder sustained before his arrest, shouted. He said that his injured shoulder worsened when he was handcuffed and forced to sleep on the floor.
"We are strong," he said to the reporters in a makeshift courtroom set up at a police institute south of Cairo. The trial was adjourned until March 5 after nearly a 40-minute hearing in which all the defendants pleaded not guilty. If found guilty, the defendants could face sentences ranging from one year for fabricating images to 15 years for belonging to a terrorist group.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling the charges against the Al-Jazeera reporters politicized and criticizing Egypt's record on freedom of expression. "Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators and academics for peacefully expressing their views," the New York-based group said in a statement. "Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job."
It was not clear how all the defendants were connected. Al-Jazeera has said it employed only nine of the 20 and the rest are mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters added to the case apparently to link the journalists to the group. The network said the Dutch woman's only connection was that she visited Fahmy at the hotel.
Fahmy told reporters "we only met the students for the first time in prison," but said the students had been sending videos to Al-Jazeera's Egyptian affiliate Mubashir Misr. The five students also shouted in court that they had been tortured and electrocuted. Their lawyers and family members said the five had been arrested in separate incident.
One of them is Anas el-Beltagy, a son of former lawmaker and Brotherhood leader Mohammed el-Beltagy who was himself arrested as part of the crackdown against the group. Anas el-Beltagy's mother Sanaa Abdel-Gawad said her son was arrested weeks before the journalists. She said he originally was charged with violating a law against protests but then new charges were added to his case linking him to the journalists.
"This is all to take revenge against el-Beltagy," she told The Associated Press while waiting in line to enter the courtroom. The charges against the Al-Jazeera employees are based on the government's designation in December of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
A video of their arrest leaked to a private TV channel shows Fahmy and Greste in a suite at Cairo's Marriott hotel overlooking the Nile River, with TV equipment scattered on desks and on the floor. Egyptian security forces have frequently targeted Al-Jazeera, accusing it of endangering national security in the years of turmoil that erupted after the 2011 popular uprising that toppled autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak.
A court order has barred Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr from broadcasting in Egypt since September, forcing the channel to broadcast using its studios in Doha, Qatar, collaborating with freelancers and using amateur video. The three men on trial were working out of the Marriott because Al-Jazeera English's offices have been closed.
Greste's parents, Lois and Juris Greste, told Australia's public broadcaster on Thursday that their son was coping relatively well in jail, running during the daily 60-minute exercise and meditating at other times.
"We clearly would desperately want the bail application to be accepted and granted. But, of course, as far as we are concerned, he is entirely and completely innocent and he should be either back home here or at his usual job in Nairobi," Juris Greste told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, called for journalists around the world to show solidarity with the detained journalists. "What is going on in Egypt right now is a trial of journalism itself, so it is critical that we remain resolute in calling for freedom of speech, for the right for people to know, and for the immediate release of all of Al Jazeera's journalists in detention in Egypt," he said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.