Journalism On Trial: Egypt's Kangaroo Court Tries to Crush Al Jazeera

CAIRO—As Canada’s Foreign Affairs minister left Egypt last Friday after warming relations with Egypt’s military installed regime, Mohamed Fahmy and his two Al Jazeera colleagues continued to languish in Cairo’s infamous Tora prison. The Canadian award winning journalist and two colleagues face unfounded charges that link journalism with terrorism.   


Since their arrest on December 29 it has been a nightmarish odyssey for Fahmy, Peter Greste, an Australian, and  Baher Mohammad, an Egyptian. For more than 115 days Fahmy has braved harsh prison conditions with a severe fracture in his arm that has drastically worsened after months of systematically denied medical treatment. A judge recently ordered he receive proper care, but in the April 22 hearing he still had heavily restricted mobility and asked to be transferred to a hospital. The request was denied.

From inside the steal caged prisoners dock, the Al Jazeera team, charged with 17 others, has been sitting through a trial where basic journalistic practice has been wielded as evidence of joining a terrorist group. During this process Fahmy has become the leading advocate for his colleagues and students unrelated to Al Jazeera that have been lumped into the trail. He regularly speaks out about the mis-treatment and hash conditions that people in Tora are subjected to, vocally challenges allegations on behalf of his colleagues and leads impromptu press conferences from the prisoner’s cage.

“Our innocence is not enough,” he shouted to the press during a recess for the April 10 hearing of the trial. “Someone has to answer for our four months in prison.” During that hearing the prosecution introduced Sky News Network tourism stories unrelated to any of the accused and Greste’s previous BBC reports from Kenya as evidence of guilt.

In the April 22 hearing the prosecution got to the core of its case: a series of interviews and photos with student activists, Muslim Brotherhood members and leftists. Inter-splicing inaudible phone calls, with B-roll footage of Cairo demonstrations, stand ups and voice over takes, the prosecution gave little explanation of their evidence as they attempted to imply it was terrorist propaganda in the making.

Fahmy expressed frustration at the translation of the interviews into Arabic. “The translation is not correct they are translating the answers not the questions,” he says describing how the prosecution is trying to hold the Al Jazeera journalists responsible for what the people they interview say.

“This evidence was against journalism, you all should be in the cage,” Fahmy says wryly towards group journalists yelling questions to him during a recess. Shouting over a line of police, towards the dock, while the accused yell back is the only way the press can communicate with those on trial. But during this hearing, the usual ritual resulted in the journalists being ejected from the court room for part of the proceedings.

During the proceedings Fahmy has said those on trial are pawns in the building tensions between Qatar and Egypt. The targeting of Al Jazeera has become part of a proxy battle between Egypt, which has been strongly backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Qatar, who has supported the Muslim Brotherhood and hosts the media network. The Saudi's have led the charge in Gulf Cooperation Council countries by recalling their envoys from Qatar--a move also taken by the UAE and Bahrain. Their demands have included shutting Al Jazeera down.

The US and Australia have questioned the trial’s legitimacy, calling for the journalists' release, but Canada isn’t.  During John Baird – the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister’s -- first visit to Cairo, he would only commit to continue requesting “a fair and expeditious trial.”

Over the two days he spent meeting his counterpart,  Baird also met with the Fahmy’s family for half an hour, something  his brother Adel says was very important  and displayed continued Canadian backing. However, despite Adel’s noting that Baird was well informed about the case, the Foreign Affairs minister has continued to refrain from calling for the journalist’s release.

Alongside the US recently resuming its military aid to Egypt, which was curtailed after the coup, this visit was Canada’s embrace of the forced military transition. Ignoring the at least 1400 people killed (according to the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights) and more than 16,000 jailed since July (according to Egyptian government sources), Baird made no mention of the vast human right violations happing across the country. He hailed Egypt’s legal system as “independent,” neglecting the 529 people allegedly linked to anti-coup riots that were sentenced to death in March after just two hearings of a mass trial. It is Egypt’s largest capital sentence in modern history.

As for the Muslim Brothehrood, the movement behind Egypt’s only elected president, Baird was sympathetic to the interim government’s terrorist label for the Islamists, saying he takes the allegations very seriously and that Canada “is always updating and reviewing its terrorist list.”

This shift in policy towards Egypt’s new regime started when the Canadian Prime Minister visited Israel in January, where he embraced the post-coup government as a “return to stability.” The PM’s statement aligned Canada’s position with Israel’s, which has been increasingly close to Egypt since the military overthrew President Mohammad Morsi.

But Ottawa had a far cooler attitude towards Cairo when Gaza bound solidarity activists, filmmaker John Greyson and ER doctor Tarek Loubani, were rounded up and jailed during the August 16 Egyptian Security Force massacre in Cairo’s Ramses square. Both PM Stephen Harper and Baird publicly demanded the release of the Canadians and said further detention would strain bilateral relations with Egypt. No such position has been taken in Fahmy’s case and the Canadian Foreign Affairs department refuses to say why.

It has been a point of frustration for the Fahmy family during much of the trail. The Fahmy’s moved to Montreal from Egypt in 1990, when Mohamed was 17. Adel describes the family as very Canadian and notes that while his brother and him left for work, their parents still reside in Canada.

Mohamed was grateful at the April 22 hearing for the meeting the Foreign Affairs Minister had with his family but the long public silence and minimal demands has pushed him in the past to call out to Ottawa from the prisoner’s cage. At the end of the March 25 hearing Fahmy lashed out at the silence from Canada’s top elected officials during a haphazard press conference. “Why isn’t the Canadian government taking a stronger stand, we don’t know what their waiting for,” he yelled to reporters.

Throughout the trial prosecutors have been unable to provide any evidence in their bid to connect the Al Jazeera journalists with the banned Brotherhood. Fahmy has scoffed at the accusation, telling the judge that he drinks alcohol -- forbidden in Islam. In a particularly ironic twist Adel notes that Mohamed, who also holds Egyptian nationality, was supportive of the June 30 mass anti-Morsi protests that the military saw as justification for the July 3 coup.

However, the Brotherhood label has been applied to Islamist, secular liberal and left wing critics of the military alike. Used to justify the ongoing crackdown, it’s a connection that implies automatic guilt in Egypt’s courts which are filled with anti-brotherhood judges from the era of dictator Hosni Mubarak. The politicized trials have become more of a rubber stamp to legitimize the state repression than fair hearings.

Still, the nature of the courts is lost on many Egyptians who are feeding on conspiracy theories peddled by the military and its vast local private and State media support. On the streets of Cairo, it is common to hear people accuse Fahmy and his Al Jazeera colleagues of being part of an unlikely coalition of foreign journalists and Islamists who are working together to destabilize the country.   

Burying the national discussion started by the 2011 popular uprising, these perceptions have become politically potent and essential for the march to the presidency that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been on since he led Morsi’s ouster.

“Al Jazeera, fuck them,” says Mohammad Sadiq, a 39 year old business man standing inside his small, cluttered rug shop in historic Islamic Cairo, crudely gesturing with his arm. He believes only Sisi can solve the country’s stagnating economy and three years of social unrest that has wearied many. “The January [2011] revolution is a part of history, we need a strong leader,” he says looking fondly upon Egypt's past strong men Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. 

Adel describes his brother as someone who continued to report in Egypt from the 2011 revolution right up until his arrest out of commitment to the values of political freedom and social justice that once filled Tahrir square. Now those desperate to relegate the revolution to history while turning back the clock are the ones holding the keys to his cell.

A version of this article was originally printed in this week's issue of NOW Magazine.

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