Egypt Refers 20 Al-Jazeera Journalists to Trial on Terrorism Charges

Mohammed Badr, a cameraman for Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, appears at a court in Cairo (AP Photo/Ahmed Omar, File)CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's chief prosecutor on Wednesday referred 20 journalists from the Al-Jazeera TV network, including four foreigners, to trial on charges of allegedly joining or assisting a terrorist group and spreading false news that endangers national security.

It was the first time authorities have put journalists on trial on terror-related charges. The charges demonstrate the expanding reach of the authorities' heavy crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.

The charges are based on the government's declaration last month of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Authorities have depicted the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood, and soon after the declaration, police arrested three reporters from Al-Jazeera English, accusing them of operating a media center for the group and spreading false news.

Al-Jazeera denies bias and has demanded the release of its reporters, whose arrest sparked an outcry from rights groups and journalist protection groups.

On Wednesday, the prosecutor's office said 16 Egyptians in the case are accused of joining a terrorist group, while the foreigners — an Australian, a Dutch citizen and two Britons — are accused of helping to promote false news benefiting the terrorist group.

The prosecutor's statement said the accused had established a media network composed of 20 people — Egyptians and foreigners — who used two suites in a luxurious hotel in Cairo as a media center, supported with cameras, broadcasting equipment and computers.

The statement said the defendants "manipulated pictures" to create "unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threaten to bring down the state" and broadcast scenes to aid "the terrorist group in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion."

Al-Jazeera's reporters in Cairo had been operating out of a hotel room after repeated raids on the network's office in Cairo since Morsi's ouster. Authorities have also denied the network's reporters accreditation.

The prosecutors' statement said eight of the defendants are in custody. Presumably they include the three journalists arrested in December — two Egyptians and an Australian. But it was not clear who the other five are.

The only other two Al-Jazeera reporters known to be in custody were arrested in August, while they covered a police crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo that left hundreds dead, and it was not known if they are among the defendants in the case.

Al-Jazeera had no immediate comment. A lawyer involved in the case confirmed the referral to trial but said he was still seeking more information. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his security.

Hundreds of the Brotherhood's leaders are now in detention or on trial, mostly on violence related charges. Morsi himself is on trial.

Gamal Eid, the head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said that under autocrat Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule, there were instances of journalists detained on allegations of terror links. But he said he knows of no instance in which they were actually referred to trial. He said it is also the first time Western journalists are accused on such charges.

"It is a state of hysteria that has reached the extent of making up charges," Eid said. He said he doesn't believe the case was part of a planned crackdown, but that among the various agencies of the state, each "is practicing its repression its own way ... We have repressive republics operating in one nation."

"This is an insult to the law," he said. He said there is no evidence in the case and pointed out that the charges come after this month's passage of a new constitution that authorities touted as "the charter of freedoms," for its articles guaranteeing a range of rights.

"Whoever took this decision must be punished because if there is law and justice in Egypt it wouldn't be used in political settlements," he said. "Working in Al-Jazeera doesn't mean membership in the Brotherhood."

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