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Egypt Orders Trial for Journalists Charged With Harboring Reporters

  • Lou Lorscheider

FILE - Yehia Qalash, the head of the journalists' union, holds a candle during a candlelight vigil for the victims of EgyptAir flight 804 in front of the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo, May 24, 2016.

FILE - Yehia Qalash, the head of the journalists' union, holds a candle during a candlelight vigil for the victims of EgyptAir flight 804 in front of the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo, May 24, 2016.

Egyptian prosecutors have ordered the head of the country's journalists union and two other senior union officials to stand trial for allegedly spreading false news and harboring fugitive colleagues.

The order, issued Monday, targets union chief Yehia Qalash, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim. It calls them to trial on June 4 in Cairo.

The controversial case stems from a May 1 police raid on the Cairo offices of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, where police aimed to arrest two opposition journalists who had sought refuge inside.

Qalash and the union condemned those arrests, at the time accusing police of storming their offices for the first time in the union's 75-year history. The Interior Ministry later denied using force to enter the building, while acknowledging police had arrested the opposition reporters.

Days later, the union demanded a presidential apology and the release of all detained journalists, while threatening to strike if its demands were not met. Protesters spurred by the arrests also called for the removal of Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar.

Activists shout slogans against Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during a protest against the decision to hand over control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia outside the Press Syndicate building, in Cairo, April 13, 2016.

Activists shout slogans against Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during a protest against the decision to hand over control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia outside the Press Syndicate building, in Cairo, April 13, 2016.

Monday's order charging the union trio comes as authorities face rising public dissent against President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, whom rights activists and diplomats inside and outside the country describe as increasingly authoritarian.

The rights group Amnesty International denounced the union leaders' arrests, calling them "the most brazen attack on the media the country has witnessed in decades." Amnesty's Magdalena Mughrabi also said the arrests signal "a dangerous escalation of Egyptian authorities' Draconian clampdown on freedom of expression."

FILE - Journalists and activists protest against the restriction of press freedom and to demand the release of detained journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, April 26, 2016.

FILE - Journalists and activists protest against the restriction of press freedom and to demand the release of detained journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, April 26, 2016.

A lawyer for the union trio, Sayed Abu Zeid, told the Associated Press his clients were questioned for hours Sunday evening and that they initially refused to post bail because "publishing news ... should not involve imprisonment or bail." Prosecutors later said bail was posted.

The two suspects arrested May 1 were detained after publishing content in mid-April criticizing Egypt's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

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