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Trial of Al-Jazeera journalists to resume

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iol pic afr Al Jazeera Protest

Cairo - The Egyptian trial resumes on Wednesday for Al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, a case that sparked a global outcry over muzzling of the press.

The high-profile trial is seen as a test of the military-installed government's tolerance of independent media, with activists fearing a return to autocracy three years after the Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The trial of the Qatar-based channel's journalists also comes against the backdrop of strained ties with Doha, which was a strong supporter of Morsi and his now-banned Brotherhood.

The journalists, including Australian reporter Peter Greste, are accused of supporting the Brotherhood and broadcasting false reports, after police shut down Al-Jazeera's Cairo offices following the military's July 3 overthrow of Morsi.

Eight out of 20 defendants are in custody, with the rest on the run or abroad.

In the first hearing on February 20 Greste, winner of the prestigious Peabody award for a documentary on Somalia, said from the caged dock that justice would prevail.

“Peter is obviously humbled and strengthened from the international support, and that's one of the things he thinks is keeping him safe in prison,” his brother Andrew Greste told AFP outside the court on Wednesday.

He said Greste was in “good physical condition” and was not “physically abused”.

Al-Jazeera's lawyer Mokhles El Salhy said he planned to ask for the release of his clients on bail at Wednesday's hearing. It was unclear when the hearing would start.

Greste, a former BBC correspondent, and Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who worked with CNN before joining Al-Jazeera, were arrested at a Cairo hotel in December.

Police leaked a video of the raid on their hotel suites, which included a taped interrogation of Fahmy and was broadcast by local media.

Fahmy's father Fadel said his son was very “tense, angry and annoyed” with his long detention.

“They accuse him of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, while he was among the first participants in the June 30 (protests) against (Morsi),” he said.

He added that prison authorities have not allowed his son to get a needed operation on his right shoulder.

Greste is the only foreign defendant in custody. Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, and Dutch journalist Rena Netjes - who was indicted even though she does not work for the channel - are abroad and being tried in absentia.

Prosecutors say the defendants falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war”, a possible reference to the broadcaster's coverage of a government crackdown in which more than 1 400 people, mostly Morsi supporters, have been killed in street clashes.

The government has designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation”, although the group denies involvement in a spate of bombings since Morsi's overthrow.

Al-Jazeera, which says only nine of the defendants are on its staff, has denied the charges.

The trial has triggered an international outcry, drawing criticism from the United States, as well as press freedom groups and scores of journalists.

On Tuesday, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it “deplores the government's continuing violations of the fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed and protected in the new constitution”.

Human Rights Watch has said the trial is part of a crackdown on dissent, and Greste himself, in a letter written from prison in January, described what he saw as a lack of freedom in Egypt.

“The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices,” he wrote. “The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.”

Since Morsi's ouster, foreign journalists have come under attack by mobs of angry Brotherhood opponents accusing them of working for Al-Jazeera to undermine Egypt's security.

While none of the arrested Al-Jazeera journalists appear to have been working with press accreditation, the authorities say they welcome accredited foreign journalists.

Officials insist the channel has been working for the benefit of Qatar, which has hosted some members of the Brotherhood who fled the crackdown.

Al-Jazeera, especially its Arabic-language service, has often come under criticism in the past for allegedly biased reporting in the Arab world. - AFP


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