Al-Jazeera journalists deny charges at Egypt trial

The BBC's Orla Guerin in Cairo says the journalists gave a "gripping account" of prison conditions at the start of the trial

Three journalists from al-Jazeera have denied all charges at the start of a trial in Cairo that has raised concerns about freedom of speech in Egypt.

Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, Australian reporter Peter Greste, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed and five others were refused bail before the case was adjourned until 5 March.

They are among 20 people facing charges including joining or aiding a terrorist organisation - the Muslim Brotherhood.

The others are being tried in absentia.

At the scene

This was a procedural hearing but there were moments of drama.

The al-Jazeera journalists stood in cages, wearing white prison uniforms. Mohamed Fahmy had a black sling supporting his dislocated shoulder.

During a break in the hearing the journalists gave us a gripping account of their conditions in jail. They said were locked up for 23 hours a day, and denied access to newspapers and television. They said they had no opportunity to prepare their defence, and had not been shown the evidence against them. In court today, there was no translator for Peter Greste, though proceedings were in Arabic.

The journalists said they have not been mistreated physically - though Mr Fahmy has been denied medical treatment for his shoulder.

Several others defendants in the case said they had been beaten in custody, including one who said cigarette butts had been put on his head. Another shouted at the judge that he had had no visitors for a month-and-a-half and did not know the trial was being held until this morning.

Al-Jazeera has said only nine of those charged are members of staff and that they were merely reporting the situation in Egypt.

It has said the allegations are "absurd, baseless and false" and consistently denied aiding the Brotherhood, on which the authorities launched a fierce crackdown after the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi in July.

The interim government and its supporters have accused international news networks of bias in their reporting of human rights abuses against Morsi supporters and secular dissenters.

'Psychologically unbearable'

The eight defendants who are currently in custody appeared in metal cages at the courtroom inside Cairo's Tora prison complex on Thursday.

Mr Greste and Mr Fahmy appealed to the Australian and Canadian governments for help. Both men said they had not been told by Egyptian officials when their trial would start, and were not given enough time with their lawyers to prepare or study the evidence against them.

"It's physically fine, but psychologically unbearable," Mr Fahmy shouted to reporters. "We are strong."

Mr Fahmy, whose arm was in a sling, also said he had been denied treatment for an injured shoulder and been given no painkillers.

"We know we have done nothing wrong. We have confidence that justice will set us free," said Mr Greste, a former BBC correspondent.

Peter Greste's parents tell the BBC their son is "entirely innocent"

The other five defendants in court, who al-Jazeera says are not staff members, complained of torture, saying they had been blindfolded for days and electrocuted.

The judge postponed the case until 5 March, when he said the court would begin hearing evidence from prosecution witnesses.

The 16 Egyptians in the case have been charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation and "harming national unity and social peace".

The four foreigners are accused of "collaborating with the Egyptians by providing them with money, equipment, information", and "airing false news aimed at informing the outside world that the country was witnessing a civil war" - an apparent reference to the unrest that has left more than 1,000 people dead in the past seven months, mostly Morsi supporters.

Al Tahrir TV broadcast grainy footage of Mohamed Adel Fahmy and Peter Greste being questioned

Some of the charges carry sentences ranging from five to 15 years.

'Silencing criticism'

Before the trial started, Mr Greste's father Juris told the BBC: "As far as we are concerned he is being punished for doing no more than his job."

The three al-Jazeera journalists were seized in a raid at a Cairo hotel on 29 December while reporting for the Qatar-based network's English news channel. Prosecutors said they were working illegally because they did not have press passes.

Four days earlier, the interim government had declared the Brotherhood a "terrorist organisation", citing recent attacks on security installations and officials but providing no evidence implicating the Islamist movement.

Aside from Mr Greste, the foreign defendants are understood to be Rena Netjes of Dutch newspaper Het Parool and BNR radio, who fled Egypt earlier this month, and British al-Jazeera reporters Dominic Kane and Sue Turton, who left the country last year.

Ms Turton told the BBC that she believed they were being "used as a test case" and that she was relying on the judges to dismiss the charges.

Sue Turton, who will be tried in her absence, says the charges have affected her work

"Al-Jazeera, in all our different channels, is watched widely across Egypt and I think one of the reasons we're being targeted is because they want to silence any kind of criticism. We were still trying to show every angle."

The US government has accused Egypt of targeting journalists and others with spurious claims, demonstrating an "egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights", and demanded their release.

Last month, prosecutors also referred 25 Egyptians to trial on charges of "insulting the judiciary," including Amr Hamzawy, an academic and former member of parliament who wrote a tweet questioning a court ruling.

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