Mohamed Fahmy, Canadian journalist in Egypt, hears charges

The family of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, an Al-Jazeera television producer on trial with colleagues in Cairo, says they are frustrated but optimistic after his first day in court.

Fahmy shouts out in court that conditions he faces in prison are 'psychologically unbearable'

Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was jailed while working for Al-Jazeera English. (Al Jazeera/CBC)

The family of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, an Al-Jazeera television producer on trial with colleagues in Cairo, says they are frustrated but optimistic after his first day in court.

Fahmy and 19 others are accused by the Egyptian government of being members of and assisting a terrorist organization. During the hearing Thursday, Fahmy shouted to reporters from his caged area that the conditions he faces in prison are "physically fine, but psychologically unbearable," The Associated Press reported.

The charges against the Al-Jazeera employees are based on the government's designation in December of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which ousted Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi hails, as a terrorist organization.

Adel Fahmy, Mohamed's brother, said after the hearing Thursday that the family wasn't allowed into the court because they lacked a permit they didn't know was needed.

Journalists demonstrate across the street from Egypt's embassy in central London on Wednesday, calling for the protection of journalists in Egypt, where six have been killed and many more injured covering events on the streets of Cairo and the rest of the country. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)

"Me and my parents were here, hoping to get in, but they’re very strict about having a permit," he told CBC's Derek Stoffel.

They plan to get a permit.

"Mohamed needed to see us by his side in this important day, and we were very frustrated, because we know he really wanted us to be right there in front of him inside the court."

Still, he said, their lawyers were hopeful after the first day.

"They feel that there is no evidence, there’s nothing that can really be held against them," Adel Fahmy said. "It’s just a matter of the trial taking its course. We’re all hoping that it … does not drag on much."

On Thursday, the charges were read out, and lawyers asked that the Al-Jazeera people be released on bail. A decision is pending, Adel Fahmy said.

"At the same time, the lawyers have said that things are looking positive, and they have full confidence in the Egyptian judicial system, and they feel the conclusion will be promising. It’s just a matter of when."

Charges 'politicized'

A rights group on Thursday denounced Egypt's stand on freedom of expression as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera employees went on trial.

New York-based Human Rights Watch described the charges against the Al-Jazeera employees — who include acting bureau chief Fahmy, correspondent Peter Greste, an Australian, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed — as "politicized."

"Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views," said a statement by Human Rights Watch.

"Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. He added their prosecution "shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating."

Egyptian authorities have long depicted Al-Jazeera as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood. But police largely targeted its Arabic service and Egyptian affiliate, which remained one of the few TV stations to provide a platform for the Brotherhood after the government's crackdown on the group since Morsi's ouster.

Tight security

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 say Al-Jazeera reporters worked without accreditation.

Thursday's hearing, held at a police school south of the capital, is being held amid tight security.

After waiting for several hours, reporters were allowed into the courtroom, but weren't allowed to bring in video or other cameras.

Prosecutors allege that the 20 Al-Jazeera employees set up a media centre for the Brotherhood in two suites in a luxury Nile-side hotel. A video of their arrest leaked to a private TV channel shows Fahmy and Greste in a hotel suite with TV equipment scattered on desks and on the floor.

A statement by the prosecution says 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."

Crackdown on Brotherhood

An official from the high state security prosecution team investigating the case said Fahmy was an alleged Brotherhood member, led the media operation that "fabricated" footage and broadcast it with the "aim of harming Egypt's reputation."

The official spoke in December when the 20 were referred to trial, The Associated Press reported. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The case against Al-Jazeera is proceeding amid a crackdown by the government against the Brotherhood. and even liberal and secular leaders of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, many of whom complain about what they see as the return of the Mubarak-era police state.

The trial is also proceeding as the nation's military chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is apparently preparing to announce his candidacy in presidential elections due in the spring. The popular el-Sissi is likely to win by a landslide.

With files from The Associated Press