CAIRO - At the close of his four-month trial in Egypt on charges of broadcasting false news and aiding terrorists, Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy made a direct appeal to the judge. Reminding him that he and his colleagues are professional journalists, he decried the trial as “political.” He also handed the judge a copy of a book about George W. Bush.
This is just the latest Kafkaesque series of events since Fahmy, Al Jazeera English’s Egyptian-Canadian Cairo bureau chief, was arrested on December 29 along with two colleagues, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed. The three are accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s government has branded a terrorist organization. The three categorically deny the charges, asserting their status as journalists working according to international standards. On Monday the judge said a verdict will be announced in the case on June 23.
After attorneys for his co-defendants concluded their remarks, Fahmy called from a metal cage where defendants are held during trials inside the large courtroom on the grounds of Cairo’s massive Tora Prison complex. He wanted to speak to the judge. The judge, Mohamed Nagy, consented.
Guards released Fahmy from the cage, and he strode to the bench. In one hand he waved a thick paperback book, a biography of Bush he had been reading in prison. “It wasn’t the media that destroyed Iraq. It was Bush.” He laid the book on the judge’s desk. The pronouncement referenced an accusation leveled in the previous session of the trial, in which the prosecutor accused Al Jazeera of helping to spread chaos in Iraq, Syria, and other countries. In a short speech, he urged Nagy not to judge the case from a political standpoint. He also raised his right arm parallel with his shoulder, demonstrating that he lost full use of his limb after receiving inadequate medical care for a shoulder he injured prior to his arrest.
The trial takes place in the context of the curtailing of freedom of expression in Egypt since the military removed elected President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, from power last July. A fourth Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, a correspondent for the network’s Arabic channel, was ordered released on Monday after being held without charge since last August and launching a hunger strike in January. Egyptian authorities have also shuttered Islamist news organizations, and a total of 16 journalists are currently in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, among as many as 20,000 political prisoners.
Fahmy’s appeal to the judge was a dramatic flourish in reaction to a trial that, over the course of 12 sessions since February, meandered into the realm of the bizarre. During previous sessions, prosecutors played confiscated videos from the journalists’ reporting, including a news conference filmed in Kenya, footage of a horse, and a report on sheep farming. The judge wears sunglasses throughout most of the hearings. A Dutch journalist who never worked for Al Jazeera managed to flee the country because prosecutors mangled the transcription of her name in official documents. During Monday’s session, the same judge instantly sentenced a man to 24 hours in jail for smoking inside the courtroom.
Most of Monday was devoted to the cases of five students charged in the same case. An attorney representing the students argued they had only been charged in order to create the impression of a wider conspiracy. In an earlier session of the trial, the journalists shouted from the defendants’ cage that they had never met the students before their arrest. The students, the defense attorney said, were only arrested “because in the media it sounds better if you can call it a cell.”
“It’s a relief that this is the last hearing. At the same time we’re anxious about the verdict,
said Adel Fahmy, Mohamed Fahmy’s brother, in a courtroom interview. “It’s been one crazy long nightmare since December 29 until today. I can’t even put it in words.”