CAIRO — Egypt said 20 journalists, including four foreigners, working for Al-Jazeera will face trial on charges of joining or aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security — an escalation that raised fears of a crackdown on freedom of the press.
It was the first time authorities have put journalists on trial on terrorism-related charges, suggesting authorities are expanding the reach of a heavy-handed crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
A trial date was not set, and the full list of charges and names of defendants not yet issued. But they are known to include three men working for Al-Jazeera English — acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, award-winning correspondent Peter Greste of Australia and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian. The three were arrested on Dec. 29 in a raid on the hotel suites in which they were working.
The charges are based on the government's designation last month of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Authorities have long depicted the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood. But police largely targeted its Arabic service and its Egyptian affiliate, which remained one of the few TV stations to provide a platform for the Brotherhood after the government crackdown. While journalists have been detained, the decision to refer cases to trial is unprecedented, experts said.
Al-Jazeera denies bias and has demanded the release of its reporters, whose arrest sparked an outcry from rights groups and journalist advocacy organizations. Authorities have also denied the network's reporters accreditation.
In the United States, which has already suspended some of its more than $1 billion annual aid to Egypt, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington remained "deeply concerned about the ongoing lack of freedom of expression and press freedom."
"The government's targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms," she told reporters at a regular briefing. "We strongly urge the government to reconsider detaining and trying these journalists."
The prosecutor's office said Wednesday that 16 Egyptians in the case are accused of joining a terrorist group, while an Australian, a Dutch citizen and two Britons were accused of helping to promote false news benefiting the terrorist group. If found guilty, the defendants could face sentences ranging from three years for spreading false news to 15 for belonging to a terrorist group.
Prosecutors allege that the 20 journalists set up a media center for the Brotherhood in two suites in a luxury hotel.
The statement said the defendants "manipulated pictures" to create "unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state" and broadcast scenes to aid "the terrorist group in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion."
An official from the high state security prosecution team investigating the case said Fahmy, the acting bureau chief, was an alleged member of the Brotherhood, led the media operation that "fabricated footage" and broadcast it with the "aim of harming Egypt's reputation." The official said equipment confiscated included editing equipment, microphones, cameras, computers, Internet broadcasting equipment and money.
The official said national security agents also seized documents, and handwritten notes including "students on strike during exams," and "the most important trials of December." Student supporters of Morsi were on strike and held protests that frequently turned violent for most of December.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Fahmy's brother, Adel, said the family had given evidence to the prosecutors showing Mohammed Fahmy was not paid by the Brotherhood and did not adhere to the group's conservative lifestyle. He said his brother has been kept in a high-security prison with Islamists and terror suspects.
"This is a cooked case and they are trying to make it bigger than what it is," Adel Fahmy said.
Another relative said Mohammed Fahmy's conditions have sharply deteriorated in the past week. The relative, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, said Fahmy has been denied food from outside, books and forced to sleep on the floor without a blanket. He has not been allowed out of his cell to exercise and has no concept of time.
The prosecutors' statement said eight defendants were in custody. Presumably they include Fahmy and his two detained colleagues. Two Al-Jazeera reporters were arrested in August while covering a police crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo that killed hundreds. It was not known if they are among the defendants in the case.
In previous crackdowns, a court order had already barred Al-Jazeera local affiliate from broadcasting in Egypt since September, accusing it of endangering national security. The channel, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, has continued to broadcast using its studios in Doha, Qatar, collaborating with freelancers and using amateur video.
Amnesty International urged authorities to immediately drop the charges against the journalists.
"The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today — that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities," said Salil Shetty, secretary general of the London-based group.
Gamal Eid, the head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said there is no evidence in the case and pointed out that the charges come after this month's passage of a new constitution that authorities touted as "the charter of freedoms," for its articles guaranteeing a range of rights. "This is an insult to the law," he said. "Working in Al-Jazeera doesn't mean membership in the Brotherhood."
Hundreds of the Brotherhood's leaders, including Morsi, are now in detention or on trial, mostly on violence-related charges.
Eid said journalists had been detained on allegations of terror links under autocrat Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule. But he said he knows of no instance in which they were actually referred to trial. He said it is also the first time Western journalists faced such charges.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelattie dismissed concerns about the freedom of the press. He said the reporters were operating without permits, and technical reports showed that they had fabricated footage — including video that took place in different times or places made to look current.
"Anyway, these are pure accusations. There is due process in this country," he said. "It is now in the hands of the judiciary."