CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Thursday temporarily adjourned the trial of 20 journalists, including three from the al-Jazeera television channel, in a case that many say highlights the military-backed interim government's crackdown on dissent and free speech.
The journalists, including four foreigners, are charged with spreading "false information" about Egypt and supporting or belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government sees as a terrorist group.
Of the twenty media workers indicted, eight are in custody, including Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Bahar Mohamed, who were imprisoned late last year. Others are being tried in absentia.
In their first court appearance, the defendants pleaded not guilty. After lawyers failed to secure the defendants' release on bail, trial was adjourned until next month.
Juris Greste, father of the award-winning al-Jazeera reporter, who is Australian, said he hopes his son will be released soon.
"Of course, as far as we are concerned, he's entirely and completely innocent," said Greste in Brisbane. "He should be either back home here or at his usual job [for al-Jazeera] in Nairobi."
Egypt's government says the case is not political but judicial, and has dismissed the outcry against the charges as foreign interference.
Many Egyptians and the pro-government media suspect foreign journalists of unfair coverage of the political upheaval in Egypt, but special anger is reserved for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel that is widely seen as backing the Muslim Brotherhood of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Qatar's rulers support the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's ex-president Mohamed Morsi, and Egypt's interim government has criticized Qatari leaders for giving safe haven to Muslim Brotherhood members.
Al Jazeera, which has vehemently denied the charges, says only nine of the defendants worked for the network. The company's broadcast executives have defended their coverage and denounced charges against their journalists as "absurd, baseless and false."
Egypt's prosecution of journalists as supporters of terrorism has attracted widespread international attention from fellow journalists, human-rights groups and others concerned about the state of press freedom in Egypt.
Journalists worldwide have launched a campaign of support for those accused in the case, and the United States and United Nations have both expressed concern. Al-Jazeera has also called on people worldwide to participate in a global day of action on February 27 to show solidarity with the journalists and pressure Egypt for their release.
Human Rights Watch said Thursday that the latest charges are political in nature, and that they demonstrate "how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating."
“Where else in the world has this happened? I mean, yes, these kind of charges get made, but usually what happens is a visa gets revoked, the reporter get expelled and so on," said Joe Stork, the New York-based group's deputy director, who called the case unprecedented. "It is a warning. It is intimidation."
Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were taken into custody in December at a Cairo hotel where they were working, following Egyptian authorities' closure of al-Jazeera's bureau there.
Authorities said they were working without accreditation, and accused them of editing video "to give the appearance that Egypt is in a civil war." Other charges against them include belonging to and possessing materials that supported a terrorist organization.
Greste, who described his coverage of Egypt as “routine,” has written letters from his prison cell denouncing the military-led government's refusal to tolerate any criticism, and he has noted the jail is becoming crowded by detainees picked up for challenging the state. Supporters say the conditions in which the journalists are held are deplorable, with vermin infesting the cells.
Since Morsi's ouster in July, the government has rounded up thousands of Brotherhood supporters and sympathizers. Over a thousand have also been killed in clashes with police, including several hundred Islamists who were killed when security forces broke up a sit-in demonstration in the Egyptian capital.
Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters have held almost daily protests against Egypt's military leadership since the coup that ousted Morsi. The military said the intervention was necessary because weeks of mass protests against Morsi and his policies were destabilizing the country. The Muslim Brotherhood has denied any role in in a series of bombings and other attacks against security forces since July.
Egypt designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization after a December bombing that was claimed by Islamic militant group Ansar Beit al Maqdas. Officials say the two groups are aligned, while members deny any links.