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US warns Egypt not to target media

Demonstrators protest outside the Egyptian embassy in London on February 19, 2014 to demand the immediate release of detained journalists in Egypt
Demonstrators protest outside the Egyptian embassy in London on February 19, 2014 to demand the immediate release of detained journalists in Egypt

A US diplomat pressed Cairo to respect "basic rights and freedoms" Thursday, warning that Egypt's stability and economic recovery were at stake, as a court opened a trial of Al-Jazeera journalists.

Washington, whose ties with historic ally Cairo have cooled in recent months, has previously reprimanded Egyptian authorities for the trial of 20 journalists of the Doha-based television news network.

"The government's targeting of journalists and others on questionable claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms," a State Department official told AFP.

"All journalists -– regardless of affiliation -- must not be targets of violence, intimidation or politicized legal action. They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in Egypt."

The journalists are accused of supporting the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood and broadcasting false reports, after police shut down Al-Jazeera's Cairo offices following president Mohamed Morsi's overthrow by the army in July.

Eight of the defendants are in custody, with the rest on the run or abroad.

A Cairo court on Thursday adjourned the trial to March 5 to provide a translator for Australian correspondent Peter Greste and to hear prosecution witnesses.

Greste is the only arrested foreign journalist. The other foreigners listed in the indictment are abroad and being tried in absentia.

"We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing lack of freedom of expression and press freedom in Egypt," the State Department official said, stressing that Washington was "closely watching" the trial.

"If Egypt's leaders want to ensure a political transition that moves Egypt's long-term stability and economic recovery forward, they must respect rights and freedoms for all Egyptians -– including freedom of expression, press and assembly."

The United States, press freedom groups and scores of journalists have protested against the detention of the reporters.

Ties between Egypt and Qatar have soured since Morsi's ouster, with Cairo accusing Doha of backing the Brotherhood, while Qatar has condemned Egypt's deadly crackdown on Morsi supporters.

Washington has repeatedly warned Egypt's interim authorities over the slow pace of democratic transition and reduced freedoms. The United States has also cut its huge aid package to Cairo.

Al-Jazeera, especially its Arabic-language service, has often come under criticism in the past for allegedly biased reporting in the Arab world.

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