CAIRO—Imprisoned Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and two other colleagues working for the news channel Al Jazeera English appeared in court for the first time on Thursday nearly two months after their arrest by Egyptian authorities.
The trial was held at the Institute for Police Trustees inside Tora, a sprawling prison complex in southern Cairo guarded by army tanks. The three journalists stood inside a caged dock in the courtroom wearing white prison outfits and denied the charges against them. They were refused bail and will remain behind bars until the next court session scheduled for March 5.
During a recess in the trial, they managed to communicate with reporters by shouting from the defendants’ cage. Fahmy said they faced “psychologically terrible” conditions in prison and were locked up 23 hours a day with no access to books or newspapers and no way to tell time. “We are strong,” he said.
Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen and the acting bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, was arrested by Egyptian authorities on Dec. 29, along with colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer.
The three are among 20 defendants accused of belonging to, or aiding and abetting a terrorist organization. Of the 20, only eight were present in the courtroom. The rest are at large and will be tried in absentia.
Amr Hamzawy was once the toast of the town among Egypt’s liberal elite.
A prominent political scientist and scholar, he rose to fame following the launch of the 2011 revolution, emerging as the spokesman for the “Committee of Wise Men,” an ad hoc coalition of public figures formed to mediate between protesters and the Mubarak regime.
Hamzawy went on to help found two liberal political parties before winning a seat in Parliament, soundly beating a Muslim Brotherhood candidate in one of the strongest showings in the 2011 elections. His liberal politics often put him at odds with the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups during their time in power. He was a frequent guest on television talk shows and a regular public speaker.
But it was Hamzawy’s outspoken criticism of the army’s overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi last July that set him apart from his liberal counterparts.
Now, three years after the revolution began, Hamzawy finds himself politically isolated. He is vilified by his former colleagues, branded a traitor and a “fifth columnist” in the press and barred from travel after prosecutors charged him last month with insulting the judiciary.
“It’s hard to be with no allies and no friends, but it’s always better to understand where people stand and what they think in order to mind future steps and maybe fashion new alliances,” Hamzawy said in a recent interview in his small office at the American University in Cairo, where he is a professor of public policy.
In Egypt, journalism can now be a form of terrorism. At least that’s what prosecutors are alleging in a case targeting Al Jazeera, with 20 defendants referred to trial on charges of joining or aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security.
Among the principal accusations, the prosecutor’s statement accuses the defendants of manipulating video footage “to produce unreal scenes to suggest abroad that the country is undergoing a civil war that portends the downfall of the state.” The statement goes on to say prosecutors assigned a team of “media experts” from the Egyptian Union for Television and Radio to inspect equipment seized from the hotel where Al Jazeera English was operating. The technical reports show that “the footage was altered and video scenes were modified using software and high-caliber editing equipment.”
So they used Final Cut Pro. They edited. They probably even selected the fiercest footage of clashes for their reports. The nature of the charges would be comical if they weren’t so serious.
The journalists accused in the case are being treated as terrorists – that is to say, inhumanely. Two of the detained Al Jazeera English staff, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, are being held in Al-Akrab, the maximum security wing of Tora prison, alongside jihadis and militants. They have been kept in solitary confinement 24-hours a day in insect-infested cells with no beds, books or sunlight for over four weeks. Following the series of bombings in Cairo on January 24, guards even took away their blankets and food their relatives had provided. After a recent visit with him, Fahmy’s family said his spirit appeared to have been broken. Peter Greste is being held in only slightly better conditions.
The second segment focusses on the third anniversary of the revolution, the potential presidential candidacy of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Morsi’s trial, growing militancy and targeting of security forces and more:
January 25, 2011, was a transformative moment for Egypt. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets to call for the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s sclerotic regime, confronting the notorious security forces on National Police Day and sparking a mass uprising that reverberated around the world.
This year, January 25 brings with it a feeling of the revolution’s undoing. A crude monument erected by the new military-backed government stands in the center of Tahrir Square—once the epicenter of autonomous mass mobilization, now a space controlled by the state and its security forces. Three protesters this week were sentenced to two years in prison for defacing the structure. The ruling barely registered in the news.
Since the military ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi last July, followed by the brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, the security establishment has emerged re-empowered, reinvigorated and out for revenge, cracking down on its opponents with unprecedented severity. Much of Egypt is awash in conformist state worship, fueled by the shrill narrative of a war on terror and the age-old autocratic logic that trades rights for the promise of security.
A Canadian journalist detained in Egypt since Dec. 29 is suffering the effects of extremely harsh prison conditions, his family says.
Mohamed Fahmy, a 40-year-old Canadian-Egyptian citizen, has been kept in solitary confinement for nearly three weeks. He is being held in a dark, insect-infested cell with no sunlight or bed, and is only allowed out for interrogation.
“The first time he saw me he didn’t recognize me for the first few seconds,” says a close family member who visited with him. “He didn’t say anything.”
Fahmy, who is being held in a maximum-security prison known as “The Scorpion,” was arrested along with two colleagues, Peter Greste, an award-winning Australian correspondent, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer. Greste has been held in slightly more favourable conditions.
I helped spearhead an effort to get representatives from international media outlets to sign a statement calling for the release of journalists detained in Egypt. The result was an impressive list of more than 50 correspondents and editors from media outlets around the world, that included some of the biggest names in the mainstream press but also smaller organizations as well.
In addition to the Al Jazeera English correspondents arrested on December 29 - Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed - at least five other journalists are currently detained in Egypt, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists: Metin Turkan of Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, Abdullah Al-Shamy and Mohamed Badr of Al Jazeera, Mahmoud Abdel Nabi of Rassd Online News, and freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, all of whom have been imprisoned for over five months.
The joint statement highlights concerns by the international press over media freedom in Egypt and the ability of journalists to do their work without fear of arrest.
My piece for the Toronto Star on the imprisonment of three journalists from Al Jazeera English, one of whom, Mohamed Fahmy, is a good friend and longtime colleague:
A Canadian journalist detained in Egypt has been held for over a week in a dank, insect-infested cell inside a maximum security prison wing with no sunlight or bed for 24 hours a day, allowed out only for interrogation.
Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen and the acting bureau chief for the news channel Al Jazeera English, was arrested by Egyptian authorities on Dec. 29, along with colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer.
Prosecutors ordered the three men to be held for 15 days on accusations that include spreading lies harmful to national security and joining a terrorist group. An Egyptian cameraman was also arrested the same day but subsequently released.
“The charges against the Al Jazeera journalists are completely unfounded,” says Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer who represents Greste and has also visited Fahmy several times. “It’s part of the general crackdown on the Brotherhood, opposition activists and journalists.”
The next day the Toronto Star penned an editorial calling on the Canadian government to push for Fahmy’s release.