Middle East

Trial of al-Jazeera reporters in Egypt a 'bad joke'

Peter Greste stands inside the defendants cage during his trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood Image copyright AFP
Image caption Peter Greste says he and his colleagues are "political prisoners"

As the court case of al-Jazeera journalists accused of aiding a terrorist group continues, Quentin Sommerville reflects on the career of one of those on trial.

"Journalists are not terrorists," came the cry from the cage in the corner of the courtroom.

It is not clear who shouted it. Inside were three al-Jazeera English journalists and three others all being held on terrorism charges.

It was the second hearing for the channel's foreign correspondent, Peter Greste, its Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and freelance producer Baher Mohamed.

They are accused of spreading "false news" and of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, which in effect governed Egypt for a year, was removed by the military following mass protests last summer. Its leaders arrested, it is now classed by the new government as a terror group.

Proceedings got off to a very slow start. First came, what the prosecution described as, the evidence against the journalists.

The judge, Mohamed Nagy, removed his sunglasses. He then took possession of each piece. Describing, haphazardly, what was handed to him.

"One brown envelope, medium-sized," he said. Inside were 96 photographs, of what though we never learned.

Boxes of cameras, computers and lighting equipment were also listed aloud. When he struggled with the packaging, two or three assistants would help, one producing a cigarette lighter to burn through the string.

A pair of birds, inside the courtroom, appeared to be trying to build a nest in a spot above the judges bench. Occasionally, a twig would fall from their beaks, narrowly missing the three, stern, moustachioed justices.

The caged journalists - and those on the press benches - looked on incredulously.

The equipment being listed was the everyday gear essential to newsgathering. It is kit we lug, from airport to hotel room, around the globe.

When the judge entered a bag of cables into the record, Peter Greste laughed.

Peter is often described as a veteran correspondent, but that does not tell you much.

He used to work for the BBC. He has really hit his stride in the past few years, producing his best work, and winning awards.

A cameraman I know, who has had his own share of scrapes, says Peter is one of the most resilient people he has ever worked with. At times of both professional and personal strain, he holds it together.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Foreign journalists have demonstrated their support for Peter Greste

He has worked in some of the world's most dangerous places.

When I lived in the BBC house in Kabul, his picture was on the wall reserved for past correspondents.

In it, he is sitting beside a bearded Mujahedeen, who stares sternly, and points an aged pistol at the lens. There is the trace of a smirk on Peter's face.

It was behind this photograph that we hid the key to our illicit booze cabinet. Even though I have only met him twice, I am fond of Peter Greste.

Back in the court room, Ahmed Hussein, the lead police investigator took the stand.

What evidence, he was asked by the defence, was there that the three journalists had falsified their reports.

"Secret sources," replied the policeman.

He said the men worked for a banned news channel, al-Jazeera's Mubasher Misr. It was blatantly pro-Muslim Brotherhood.

Except, they do not. They are employed by al-Jazeera English, whose reporting is generally regarded credible and impartial.

When the policeman admitted he did not know the difference between the two channels, the three caged journalists, who had only earlier had their handcuffs removed, celebrated, by giving each other high fives.

A moment of relief, the implausibility of the charges against these men, was exposed.

Mr Hussein though ploughed on.

Anyone who broadcast news that helped, as he put it, the Muslim Brotherhood was a member of the terrorist group, he said. With that logic, most journalists who have covered Egypt, should be locked up too.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPeter Greste's brother Andrew: "It's remarkable how well he's managing"

As the day's proceedings ended, I snuck over to as close to the cage as possible, and spoke briefly to Peter.

"We are political prisoners," he said.

He is right.

The men are caught in a battle between al-Jazeera's owners, the state of Qatar, and the Egyptian government. Qatar is an ally of the Brotherhood.

There is a vendetta between the new Egyptian government and the previous one. Most of the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has been jailed, the ousted President, Mohammed Morsi, is only seen these days, also in a cage, in a courtroom.

The overthrow of one government, and the establishment of the other was bloody and painful. Hundreds of Egyptians were killed on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere. Hundreds more were arrested.

I was there, doing my job as a reporter, and so too was Peter. He and his colleagues have been jailed for 69 days now.

It is time this bad joke came to an end.

It seems ridiculous that I have to say these words, but here goes: Peter Greste, is not a terrorist.

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