CAIRO (AP) — Two Al-Jazeera journalists who went on trial Thursday in Egypt with other colleagues shouted from the defendants’ cage that they faced “psychologically unbearable” conditions in prison.
Egyptian-Canadian Mohammed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste also shouted to reporters in the courtroom that they had no access to books or newspapers and were allowed only one hour of exercise a day. They said they were allowed a weekly visit by their lawyers and that prison officials monitored family visits.
The two are among 20 defendants accused of belonging to and aiding a terrorist organization and threatening national security. Of the 20, only eight were present in the courtroom. The rest are at large and will be tried in absentia.
Authorities long have depicted Al-Jazeera as biased toward ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group. Al-Jazeera denies being biased.
The trial was adjourned until March 5 after a 40-minute hearing.
“It’s physically fine, but psychologically unbearable,” Fahmy shouted. “We are strong,” he said to the reporters in a makeshift courtroom set up at a police academy south of Cairo.
The trial began just hours after a rights group denounced Egypt’s record on freedom of expression and called the charges against the Al-Jazeera employees “politicized.”
“Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators and academics for peacefully expressing their views,” said a statement by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. He added their prosecution “shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating.”
The charges against the Al-Jazeera employees are based on the government’s designation in December of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The arrest in December of Fahmy, Greste and a third Al-Jazeera employee, Baher Mohamed, sparked an outcry from rights groups and journalist advocacy organizations. Authorities say Al-Jazeera reporters worked without accreditation.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined to specifically address the case, but said a free press was vital for all countries. “Obviously, a free press is not compatible with harassing journalists going about their ordinary businesses,” he told reporters in Sydney.
Greste’s parents, Lois and Juris Greste, told Australia’s public broadcaster on Thursday that their son was coping relatively well in jail, running during the daily 60-minute exercise and meditating at other times.
“We clearly would desperately want the bail application to be accepted and granted. But, of course, as far as we are concerned, he is entirely and completely innocent and he should be either back home here or at his usual job in Nairobi,” Juris Greste told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Prosecutors allege that the 20 Al-Jazeera employees set up a media center for the Brotherhood in two suites in a luxury Nile-side hotel. A video of their arrest leaked to a private TV channel shows Fahmy and Greste in a hotel suite with TV equipment scattered on desks and on the floor.
A statement by the prosecution said the defendants “manipulated pictures” to create “unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state” and broadcast scenes to aid “the terrorist group in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion.”
An official from the high state security prosecution team investigating the case said Fahmy was an alleged Brotherhood member, led the media operation that “fabricated” footage and broadcast it with the “aim of harming Egypt’s reputation.” The official spoke in December when the 20 were referred to trial. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The case against Al-Jazeera is proceeding amid a crackdown by the government against the Brotherhood and even liberal and secular leaders of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, many of whom complain about what they see as the return of the Mubarak-era police state.
The trial is also going ahead as the nation’s military chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is apparently preparing to announce his candidacy in presidential elections due in the spring. The popular el-Sissi is likely to win by a landslide.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.