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Al Jazeera Trial Tests Egypt's Courts

Canadian Al Jazeera English journalist Mohammed Fahmy, listens to his lawyer, Khaled Abou Bakr during his retrial in a courtroom, of Tora prison, in Cairo, Egypt, June 1, 2015.

After months of delays, the retrial of three convicted Al Jazeera journalists and five others continues this week, with defense lawyers expected to begin final arguments on Thursday. Once seen as a “mud fight” between Egypt and rival Qatar, the trial and the sudden release of an imprisoned Egyptian-American activist raises questions about Egyptian justice being less harsh to foreigners than its citizens.

The three Al Jazeera English journalists, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, along with five other co-defendants are being re-tried as planned, despite the fact Greste is in Australia after being deported early this year.

Other defendants include students accused of filing media reports about Egypt for Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language station, now banned in Egypt. The Egyptian government says the network supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which it calls a terrorist organization.

The charges include things like “spreading lies” and “helping a terrorist organization.”

A lawyer who represents three of the students, Shabaan Said, says the two groups of defendants did not know each other before their arrests. The lawyers for all the defendants are working together, he says, but he fears the journalists may be treated better because they are known internationally.

Said does not deny Al Jazeera's Arabic programming criticized the government, but he argues the opposition should be allowed a voice. The network says there is “no bias whatsoever.”

Rights groups condemned the original trial, saying no credible evidence was presented before the journalists were sentenced to seven and 10 years last June.

But Egyptian publisher and editor Hisham Kassem says in Egypt, the trial was not seen as an effort to silence journalism in general, but part of a specific fight between the Egyptian government and Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood and owns Al Jazeera.

“The Jazeera case was basically perceived by everybody as a mud fight between the Egyptian and Qatari governments," he said. "So nobody was looking upon it as something to gauge the situation by. We all knew that this was basically the Egyptian government sick and tired of Al Jazeera.”

Relations have since improved between the two nations and Kassem says he believes the current trial will be fair. But if convictions are upheld, he adds, a recent presidential decree saying foreign convicts can be deported could undermine the government’s credibility.

After Greste was deported under the decree, Mohamed Fahmy renounced his Egyptian citizenship, hoping to be deported to Canada, his other home country.

Last weekend, Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American activist who had been sentenced to life in prison gave up his Egyptian citizenship and was suddenly sent to the United States. Activists who celebrated Soltan’s release also complained he was freed only because he is a U.S. citizen.

Kassem says this could be a dangerous trend.

“The question is going to be: ‘So if I am a foreigner and I violate the law I am going to be deported? And if I am Egyptian I stay behind and serve out my sentence?’ So, no, I do not think they can continue to do that,” he said.

But Fahmy's current strategy is not to be deported, but to be acquitted, because he says it was the Al Jazeera network at fault, not the journalists.

"Me, Baher and Peter produced balanced reports, we took care of business, we were not in any way biased or broke any laws," Fahmy said after court on Monday. "However the network did, and this separation is part of our main defense and we will present it on June 4th."

Last month, Fahmy announced that he is suing Al Jazeera for $100 million in a Canadian court. The network says the suit is part of his defense strategy and denies wrongdoing.