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Egypt said 20 Al-Jazeera journalists, including both Egyptians and foreigners, will face trial on terrorism-related charges.
Among them are three journalists employed by Al-Jazeera English, the Qatari-based international news channel. Award-winning Australian correspondent Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian producer Mohammed Fadel Fahmy, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were arrested on Dec. 29 in a raid on a Cairo hotel room, which the network was using as a temporary bureau. The Egyptian government alleges that 12 of the Al-Jazeera journalists remain at large, while eight are in state custody, including Greste, Fahmy and Baher.
Authorities have not set a date for the trial or released the full list of the defendants' names. However, in a statement released by the General Prosecutor's office, the Egyptian defendants have been charged with “crimes of belonging to terrorist organizations violating the law, calling for disrupting the law and preventing state institutions from conducting their affairs, assault on personal liberties of citizens and damaging national unity and social peace.”
Authorities have not set a date for the trial or released the full list of the defendants' names.
The foreign defendants were charged with collusion, broadcasting false news and effectively harming national security. The government also alleged foreign media were harming Egypt’s image abroad.
"This attempt to criminalize legitimate journalistic work is what distorts Egypt's image abroad. The government's lack of tolerance shows that it is unable to handle criticism," said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator of the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.
The arrest and the charges brought against the journalists – a first since a military-backed popular revolt removed Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian President Mohammed Morsi from power in July -- have drawn strong international condemnation.
The move has also led many journalists and human rights organizations to fear the Egyptian government may be expanding its crackdown to other groups beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Morsi and has been outlawed as a "terrorist organization." Egypt has become among the most dangerous and difficult places to work for journalists.
“Today’s decision by Egypt’s chief prosecutor to refer a number of journalists to trial on alleged terrorism-related charges is a major setback for media freedom in Egypt,” said Salil Shetty, secretary general of nonprofit Amnesty International.
The organization considers the journalists to be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression, and is calling for them to be immediately and unconditionally released, according to a statement posted on the organization's website.
At a news conference in London Wednesday, Heather Allan, head of newsgathering for Al-Jazeera English, said the network was doing all it could to secure the release of all Al-Jazeera journalists detained in Egypt. Allan said some of the network's journalists have been held indefinitely, with their detentions renewed every 45 days without charge.
Conditions in the prisons are “horrific,” according to Allan and letters smuggled out by Fahmy and Greste. Allan also added, “We continue to support them, we managed to get food in, toiletries in, blankets. There is nothing there, they don’t give them anything even to sleep on, it’s the floor, basically” and the provisions that have been taken in “have been taken away.”
Egyptian authorities have depicted Al-Jazeera as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood, a description the network rejects.
Greste's parents joined the news conference from Australia via Skype. His father, Juris said the solitary confinement conditions are the biggest concern for their son’s mental and physical well-being.
Conditions in the prisons are 'horrific,' according to Allan and letters smuggled out by Fahmy and Greste.
Earlier in January, a letter signed by more than 40 internationally renowned journalists representing more than 30 international media organizations called for the release of the journalists held in Egypt. The letter, which was also signed by NBC News, also emphasized that, “The arrest of these journalists has cast a cloud over press and media freedom in Egypt.”