CAIRO — Egyptian prosecutors laid out boxes, bags and envelopes of evidence Wednesday in a dramatic showing that lasted nearly an hour but revealed almost nothing in support of a case against journalists that has inspired outrage and condemnation around the world.
Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and cameraman Baher Mohamed of the Al Jazeera English satellite news network have been imprisoned in Egypt for more than two months on charges of being members of and aiding a designated terrorist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Prosecutors have also charged 17 co-defendants in the case, including students and activists, three of whom were with Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed in the cage-like defendants’ docket Wednesday.
The defendants and Al Jazeera English have denied the charges, calling them absurd and politicized.
Wednesday marked the second hearing in their case, and the first time that evidence has been presented. But the evidence that was ceremonially opened and presented by Judge Mohamed Nagy Shahat revealed little to support the prosecution’s charges.
It included dozens of photographs, “printed papers,” cameras, computers, cellphones, flash drives and a card reader — equipment typical in any newsroom.
Shahat provided no details of what evidence was contained in the gear, which had been collected from two Cairo hotel rooms that the network had rented. But he provided detailed descriptions of the packages they came in — such as “a medium-size white envelope” — prompting snickers from some in the room.
Shahat and other court officials struggled to open some of the evidence bags that had been sealed with wax, and had trouble reading the serial numbers attached to computer equipment; at times, even they seemed uncertain what it was they were looking for.
“Journalists are not terrorists,” Baher Mohamed shouted from the cage early in the hearing.
“My arm has been broken for 10 weeks, and I can’t get treatment,” said Fahmy, whose arm was in a sling.
Another young man, Sohaib Said, a student, shouted from the docket that he had been tortured by state security. Gripping the bars with hands that appeared to be bandaged, Said said he had been deprived of visitors for 40 days. And the trial was “unjust,” he shouted.
“ ‘Unjust trial’ will cost you a lot,” Shahat reprimanded him, threatening to put him on trial for contempt of court.
When the court called as its first witness an investigator from Egyptian state security, Fahmy’s lawyer, Khaled Abu Bakr, launched into a series of questions designed to expose a disconnect between the prosecution’s claims and its evidence.
Abu Bakr pressed the witness to define what prosecutors and investigators meant by one of the key allegations — that Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed had altered footage to broadcast a false depiction of reality.
“I’m only responsible for investigations, not for inspecting evidence,” the witness replied.
Investigators had also asked Fahmy how he felt about ousted president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Fahmy had told them he was against Morsi, Abu Bakr said. Fahmy said he supported state institutions, and that he respects the country’s new military-backed constitution, too. “Can someone who gives those answers be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Abu Bakr asked.
The state security witness declined to answer.
Fahmy’s father, overcome with emotion, stood suddenly during the proceedings, interrupting the court. “My son has no relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood!” he yelled, before listing the prominent international news organizations that his son has worked for, including CNN and the New York Times. “Are you satisfied with the insults and injuries you’re putting my son through?” he shouted, as his family, including his son from the docket, pleaded with him to sit down.
Fahmy’s family had visited him in jail the day before, an experience that they said has proved increasingly hard.
“Yesterday was very difficult,” his brother Adel Fahmy said. “He was very down.” The men have been deprived of books, newspapers and other outlets to the outside world, he said. They are “completely isolated,” he added.
“During the prosecution phase, we were very optimistic,” he said. Their lawyer had assured the family that it was “an open-shut case” — there was no evidence to support the charges, and there was no way it would make it to court. But with each passing day, and a third hearing scheduled for March 24, Fahmy’s family is questioning how much the evidence — or lack of it — really matters.
“Now, what can I say?” Adel Fahmy said. “We still have hope. But we’re very stressed about how it’s playing out.”