Cairo - Three lawyers representing Al Jazeera English journalists on trial in Egypt abruptly quit the case Thursday, accusing the Doha-based network of using the arrest of their staff to tarnish the country's image.
A human rights lawyer criticized the lawyers' decision, calling the courtroom declarations a “bad omen” for the journalists held since December.
Canadian-Egyptian acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed face charges of belonging to and aiding a terrorist group, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. That's the group from which ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi hails. They also face charges of fabricating footage to undermine Egypt's national security.
The government has long accused Al Jazeera, its Arabic service in particular, of acting as a platform for the Brotherhood and Morsi supporters. The journalists and the network deny the charges.
At the hearing, lawyer Farag Fathi stood in front of Judge Mohammed Nagi Shehata to denounce the network.
“The Al Jazeera channel is offending Egypt,” Fathi said. He also claimed the network attributed comments to him on air that he didn't say.
The three lawyers represent both Greste and Mohammed. Their decision to quit raised fears among the journalists it would harm their chances in court. They said the lawyers didn't warn them ahead of the hearing of their decision.
“What the lawyer did makes us look bad!” Fahmy shouted to journalists from behind bars. “We are very angry with the way this is unfolding!”
Prosecutors also said lawyers for the journalists must pay 1.2
million Egyptian pounds - $170,000 - for copies of the evidence against them, an unusually high amount of money.
In a statement Thursday, Al Jazeera said it continued to work “with a first-class legal team to end this injustice.”
“There have been many farcical scenes during the previous seven court hearings, and today was another example,” the statement said. “It is an affront to justice for the prosecution to attempt charging $170,000 for the defense to see the video evidence against them.”
Police arrested the three journalists Dec. 29 after police raided a Cairo hotel room they used as an office.
In previous hearings, prosecutors offered video clips found with the journalists about an animal hospital with donkeys and horses, and another about Christian life in Egypt as evidence of their crimes. Defense lawyers and even the judge dismissed the footage as irrelevant.
In addition to the three journalists, 14 other people are charged in the case. All but nine are being tried in absentia, though one newly arrested defendant attended the trial for the first time Thursday. Other defendants include student supporters of the Brotherhood, including a son of a high-ranking leader Mohammed el-Beltagy. The journalists say they have no relationship with the students.
Mohammed Farouk, a human rights lawyer who is closely following the case, said that the lawyers' move could harm the journalists because it implies the journalists are guilty.
“This will have an impact on the judge and his decision,” Farouk said. “What the lawyer said is exactly what the prosecution is charging defendants with.”
He added that the lawyer could just have left the case without making an announcement.
The trial will resume May 22.
Al Jazeera Arabic service journalist Abdullah Elshamy, who is on a hunger strike, has been held without charges since August after being arrested separately.