(By Joe Stork)
(Beirut) – 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.
Prosecutors on January 29, 2014, referred three Al Jazeera English journalists to trial on politicized charges such as disseminating “false information” and belonging to a “terrorist organization,” some of which carry prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. At least 17 other journalists and opposition figures face similar charges in the same case, with the trial scheduled to begin on February 20. On January 19, prosecutors referred 25 people to trial on charges of “insulting the judiciary,” including Amr Hamzawy, an academic and former member of parliament.
“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. “The prosecution of these journalists for speaking with Muslim Brotherhood members, coming after the prosecution of protesters and academics, shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating.”
The three detained Al Jazeera journalists – Egyptian nationals Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed and an Australian, Peter Greste – face charges including editing video footage to “give the appearance that Egypt is in a civil war,” operating broadcast equipment without a license, membership in a terrorist organization, and possession of material that promotes the goals of a terrorist organization.
The charges against Hamzawy relate to a June 2013 Twitter message saying that the conviction of 43 employees of pro-democracy organizations demonstrated the “politicization” of the judiciary. Other defendants in this case include Mustafa al-Naggar, also a former parliament member, and Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a well-known activist who had been detained since late November on false charges of organizing a demonstration without notification.
In early January 2014 authorities charged another prominent academic, the American University in Cairo political science professor Emad Shahin, along with senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, with conspiring with foreign organizations to harm Egyptian national security. Both Shahin and Hamzawy had been vocal critics of President Mohamed Morsy’s government, but they had also criticized the bloody repression of the Brotherhood after the military removed Morsy from power. Authorities placed Hamzawy under a travel ban and his case has been referred to trial but no date has been scheduled. Shahin had left Egypt before the charges against him became known later in January.
Police have relied on a repressive November 2013 protest law to violently disperse and arrest hundreds of peaceful protesters under the pretext that they assembled without a permit. A court used this law in December to sentence three leading activists – Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel, and Ahmed Douma – to three years in prison.
In late December, the interim government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization,” citing recent attacks on security installations and officials but providing no evidence linking the Brotherhood to those attacks. Although the designation does not have the force of law unless issued by a court, officials have used it to arrest and prosecute people who have any contact with Brotherhood members, such as the Al Jazeera journalists.
Egypt’s new constitution, in article 65, protects freedom of thought and opinion, and in article 71 states that no one shall be imprisoned for “crimes committed by way of publication or the public nature thereof.”
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, Egypt is required to protect freedom of expression. Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of experts that reviews countries’ compliance with the ICCPR, has written that the freedom of expression is “essential” to the full enjoyment of the right to participate in public affairs and vote.
More than 50 foreign correspondents issued a statement on January 13 calling for an end to the imprisonment of the three Al Jazeera journalists, saying that their arrest had “cast a cloud over press and media freedom in Egypt.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists named Egypt among the top three deadliest countries for journalists in 2013.
“Egyptian and international human rights organizations have for years called on Egyptian authorities to amend the country’s penal code, whose overly broad provisions were the government’s main legal tool to lock up dissenters.” Stork said. “Today, prosecutors have at their disposal an even greater arsenal of repressive laws that criminalize legitimate expression, assembly, and association.”
Arrest and Detention of Al Jazeera Journalists
On December 29, 2013, police raided two rooms at the Marriott hotel, where Greste, an Al Jazeera English correspondent, and Fahmy, the Cairo bureau chief, were staying, as well as the home of Mohamed, an Al Jazeera English producer. Media supportive of the government have since referred to the arrested journalists as the “Marriott cell,” and Tahrir TV on February 2, 2014, aired a lengthy video of the raid on the hotel rooms.
Police arrested Fahmy, who holds joint Egyptian and Canadian citizenship, as well as Greste, Mohamed, and a cameraman, Mohamed Fawzy, an Egyptian. Police released Fawzy on December 31, 2013, but prosecutors ordered the detention of the other three for two successive 15-day periods, pending interrogation on allegations oflinks to a “terrorist organization” and “spreading false news” that harms national security. Authorities accused the journalists of using their Marriot suite as a meeting point and broadcast center for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Authorities have detained the three in Tora Prison, in southern Cairo, since their arrest. In a letter from prison, Greste described routinely being kept in his cell for 24 hours a day and allowed out only for questioning. Until recently, authorities held Fahmy and Mohamed in the maximum-security Scorpion unit of the prison, where people alleged to be responsible for terrorist attacks are held.
On January 29, 2014, a court rejected Greste’s appeal of his pretrial detention.
That same day, the State Security Prosecution Office referred the three journalists for trial, along with the 17 others, three of them non-Egyptians and 12 of them in absentia. Prosecutors charged the Egyptian journalists with membership in a terrorist organization and the foreign journalists with colluding with the Egyptian defendants. The charges also include possession of printed and recorded material that promote the goals of a terrorist group, disseminating false information with the purpose of harming public order, and the possession of broadcasting and filming equipment without official authorization.
A Dutch journalist, Rena Netjes of Holland's Parool newspaper and BNR radio, went into hiding and fled Egypt after discovering she was one of the 20 journalists on the government’s list of people facing charges of disseminating false information and promoting the goals of a terrorist group. Netjes had met with Al Jazeera’s Fahmy the week before his arrest.
Reuters reported on February 9 that a Cairo prosecutor had ordered the detention of another man, Hassan al-Banna, accusing him of editing a photo he sent to Al Jazeera and of being a member of a terrorist organization.
The State Security Prosecution Office press release on January 29 said that the journalists had “used broadcasting equipment and computers to gather footage and manipulate it to produce a false image to give the outside world the impression that what is happening in the country is a civil war … and the broadcasting of these images via the Qatari Al Jazeera to assist the terrorist group to fulfill its goals in influencing public opinion abroad.”
The prosecutor’s statement said that experts had confirmed that “footage had been changed and edited using software and high-tech editing equipment” and that these included “false images that harm national security.”
In a January 25 letter smuggled out of Tora Prison, Greste wrote:
The state has presented no evidence to support the allegations, and we have not been formally charged with any crime. But the prosecutor general has just extended our initial 15-day detention by another 15 days to give investigators more time to find something. He can do this indefinitely – one of my prison mates has been behind bars for 6 months without a single charge … The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices.
Authorities earlier detained two other journalists from Al Jazeera sister channels, Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr. Authorities detained Mohamed Badr on July 15, 2013, on charges of rioting. A court acquitted him, and he was released earlier in February 2014. Police arrested Abdullah al-Shami during the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Raba’a Square on August 14, 2013. He remains in detention, without a trial date, on accusations of inciting violence, disturbing the peace, and destroying public property.
Arrests of Other Journalists and Media Activists
In the aftermath of the military’s ouster of President Morsi on July 3, security forces closed down TV stations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents. Authorities have detained 18 contributors to the citizen news network, Rassd, since July 3, including two who are facing military trials, Asma al-Khatib, a journalist with the network, told Human Rights Watch.
On January 22, 2014, police arrested an Egyptian filmmaker, Hossam al-Meneai, and an American translator, Jeremy Hodge, at their Cairo apartment. Police released Hodge four days later without charge, but held al-Meneai for 18 days. Al-Meneai still faces charges of spreading “false names and endangering the stability of the nation.” Hodge told journalists that al-Meneai was tortured, which al-Meneai subsequently confirmed.
Related video added by Juan Cole: