Al Jazeera journalists plead not guilty in Egypt court

Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste deny links to ‘terrorist organization’ and spreading false news

Some of the charges leveled against, from left, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste carry prison sentences of five to 15 years.

An Egyptian court put Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed on trial for allegedly having links to a "terrorist organization" and spreading false news. The three men pleaded not guilty on Thursday. The trial has now been adjourned until March 5.

The case is one of many that have led to criticism of Egypt's military-backed government, with rights groups pointing to growing intolerance for dissent in the Arab world's most populous country.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that this trial like recent trials conducted under the military-backed government in Egypt "have not been fair."

"You get a sense that there really is kind of a predetermined vendetta here," Roth said.  "One of Al Jazeera’s offenses, frankly, was being an independent voice."

One of Al Jazeera’s offenses, frankly, was being an independent voice

Kenneth Roth

Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

Since their arrest, journalists have staged protests worldwide demanding their release, and rejecting claims that the three have links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's former ruling party, which has since been designated a "terrorist" group. Some of the charges leveled against the journalists carry prison sentences of five to 15 years.

Roth also remarked that the trial was a meant to be a warning signal to journalists, that they "dare" not report on the Muslim Brotherhood or “give them a voice. 

"Part of why Al Jazeera English was targeted here is that the government is worried about its international reputation and this prosecution is doing more to undermine Egypt's international reputation than anything Al Jazeera English could have reported," Roth said. 

"So if there is a real pragmatic goal here, you would think that the government right now would accept bail and as quickly as possible would dismiss charges, but we have to see how this goes." 

In total, nine journalists from the Qatar-based media network are among a group of 20 facing charges related to the case. The rest of the group have no connection to Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, and Dutch journalist Rena Netjes — indicted though she does not work for the network — are to be tried in absentia.

A fourth Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah al-Shami of the network's Arabic channel, has been held since August. He has been on hunger strike for more than a month to protest his imprisonment.

In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Egypt the world's third deadliest country for journalists. At least five journalists were killed and 45 assaulted last year, according to CPJ. Security forces raided at least 11 news outlets that year.

Greste, an award-winning journalist who has worked for the BBC and Reuters, has written letters from prison, one of which described what he sees as a lack of press freedom in Egypt.

Al Jazeera denies all the charges against its staff and has demanded their release.

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