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From Al Jazeera on Trial to Bloggers Behind Bars, Army-Run Egypt Sees Growing “Silencing of Dissent”

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The Egyptian military government has announced 20 Al Jazeera journalists will face trial for conspiring with a terrorist group and broadcasting false images. The military has accused Al Jazeera of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been protesting against the government since the army toppled President Mohamed Morsi in July. “This comes amidst a widening assault on journalists in the streets,” says Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous from Cairo. “On the anniversary of the revolution on the 25th of January, we saw over a dozen journalists attacked in Tahrir Square. Journalists are frequently accused when they are assaulted of belonging to Al Jazeera. And this is a direct result of a demonization campaign of Al Jazeera that has gone on for months now in the state and private media channels.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Egypt’s military government has announced 20 Al Jazeera journalists will go on trial for endangering national security and belonging to or aiding a, quote, “terrorist organization.” The military has accused Al Jazeera of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been protesting against the government since the army toppled President Mohamed Morsi in July. Three of the journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed—have been detained since December 29th. Peter Greste’s father condemned the move.

JURIS GRESTE: It’s unbecoming of a great nation like Egypt. It is unbecoming of any civil society to behave like this. It’s demeaning of any community which even pretends to be democratic and fair.

AMY GOODMAN: The news comes just days after the third anniversary of the revolution that ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Over the weekend, more than 60 people were killed in clashes surrounding the anniversary. Some 1,000 people were detained by Sunday night. In a sign of growing activity by militants, an Egyptian army helicopter was shot down in the Sinai desert, killing all five soldiers on board. Six people were also killed in a series of bombings around Cairo.

Following the weekend’s violence, the military government said it would hold presidential elections earlier than its political road map had called for. Egypt’s top military body has already given its approval for armed forces chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to run for the presidency. Sisi led the ousting of Morsi in July.

For more on the situation, we go to Egypt, to Cairo, to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. His most recent piece for The Nation is called “Egypt in Year Three.”

Sharif, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what’s happening.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you mentioned at the outset, these charges that are being brought against journalists at Al Jazeera really mark a frightening escalation in the crackdown on freedom of the press in Egypt. These charges—many journalists have been detained, but really the decision by the authorities or prosecutors to bring this case to trial is seen by many as unprecedented. They’re the first terrorism-related charges being brought against journalists, and they are being—they are brought after the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization by the government last month.

So there’s 20 defendants mentioned in the prosecutors’ statement. There’s no names mentioned, although we do know that 16 of them are Egyptian. They’re accused of joining a terrorist organization. They’re accused of endangering national security. There’s four foreigners that are listed—two British citizens, an Australian citizen and a Dutch citizen—and they’re accused of conspiring and aiding in publishing this false news to portray Egypt as going through a civil war and to destabilize the country.

So, but what we do know also is that there are five Al Jazeera journalists that are imprisoned right now. As you mentioned, three of them are from Al Jazeera English. They include Peter Greste, an Australian citizen; Mohamed Fahmy, who’s a Canadian-Egyptian citizen; and Baher Mohamed, who is an Egyptian citizen. Both Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed have been held in a maximum-security wing of Tora Prison. They’ve been held in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day, no access to sunlight, in insect-infested cells, with no bed. They were recently deprived of even a blanket and of food being brought in. And their family members have said that they are suffering the effects of what can only be described as this punitive confinement. The other two Al Jazeera journalists work for the Arabic-language channels of the network. One is Mohammad Badr and Abdullah al-Shami, who have been in prison for over five months now. Abdullah al-Shami is on the tenth day of a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. So, we’re waiting to see what the names are of these 20 defendants, but many presume that at least the three Al Jazeera journalists are named in it.

And this comes also, Amy, amidst a widening assault on journalists in the street. On the anniversary of the revolution, the 25th of January, we saw over a dozen journalists attacked in Tahrir Square. Journalists were attacked outside on the streets. Journalists were shot covering clashes between protesters and security forces. Journalists are frequently—when they are assaulted by citizens, are accused of belonging to Al Jazeera. And this is a direct result of a demonization campaign of Al Jazeera that has gone on for months now in the state and private media channels.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the Egyptian government saying in response?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, they say that—they keep citing the independence of the judiciary, that this is in the hands of prosecutors and the independent judicial process. That process claims that—you know, Al Jazeera was operating out of the Marriott, or a luxurious hotel, they said, which is the Marriott in Zamalek, and that they were editing footage to manipulate the footage to make Egypt look like it was undergoing a civil war. But clearly, there’s been a crackdown against Al Jazeera and against any media that gives a platform for opposition voices. Right now, government officials cannot even say to journalists whether it’s a crime to publish an interview with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. So that’s the framework now that journalists are trying to operate in, and it’s coming all amidst this really heavy crackdown on dissent in general.

AMY GOODMAN: The Al Jazeera correspondent, Peter Greste, got a letter out of the prison, from Tora Prison, saying that two of his colleagues, Baher and Fahmy, are being held in what’s known as a more draconian “Scorpion prison,” which is held for members of terrorist organizations, because, of course, they’re being considered Muslim Brotherhood. And he said that one of his colleagues needs hospital treatment, Fahmy, but he’s not getting that hospital treatment. So, talk about how these journalists are being treated, and then, overall, beyond even Egyptian journalists, the number of Egyptian protesters that are being held in jails today.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Peter Greste has been held in a wing of the same prison that is a little—with slightly better conditions. He’s actually in the cell right next to Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is a very prominent blogger and activist who has been in prison since late November. But he’s kept in his cell 20 hours a day, allowed out only four hours a day. He does have access, though, to books and to writing materials, and he penned two very moving letters from prison describing his conditions, but also talking about the general state of the country and this crackdown on the press in Egypt.

As I mentioned, the other two Al Jazeera English journalists are being held in this maximum-security wing. They’re held with people like Muhammad al-Zawahiri, who’s the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda. Mohamed Fahmy has had a broken shoulder when he was arrested, from a previous injury, and it was aggravated during his arrest. He’s been denied medical treatment. His family, who recently visited him just this—a few days ago, said that he looked like his spirit had been broken. And we’ve discussed many times on Democracy Now! the effect that solitary confinement can have. And they’ve been held in 24-hour solitary confinement for a month now and allowed out only for interrogation.

As far as protesters being held, it’s very difficult to get an accurate number of the number of people that have been imprisoned. I mean, Egypt’s jails are bursting with prisoners. By one count by a group called Wiki Thawra, they put it at 21,000 people have been arrested since the ouster of Morsi. Every day we hear of people being rounded up on the streets. The primary target of these arrests have been the Muslim Brotherhood—Muslim Brotherhood members in Cairo, across the Delta, in the South. But the crackdown has widened beyond that and is now targeting anyone who voices any kind of opposition or dissent to the current military-backed government. It has targeted prominent intellectual voices, like Amr Hamzawy, who’s probably the most prominent public intellectual in Egypt. It’s targeted Professor Emad Shahin, who’s been charged with espionage charges now. He teaches also at the American University in Cairo, used to teach at Harvard and Notre Dame, and is now in the United States. So, this is really coming amidst this widening silencing of any opposition voices, and it’s become difficult for anyone to speak out, and it’s become very difficult for journalists to operate, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the former lawmaker and political scientist, Amr Hamzawy, who was also charged. He was charged for insulting the judiciary in a tweet?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, this was a tweet that he sent out while Morsi was in power in June, right before his ouster. And it was a tweet where he criticized the sentencing or the outcome of a trial that targeted over 40 NGO workers who were arrested at the end of 2011, or there was a raid of their offices in 2011. So he sent this tweet out, and he’s been charged in this very wide case that has people across the political spectrum named in it, both opponents and supporters of Mohamed Morsi, and accused of insulting the judiciary, which is a crime in this country. So, he’s facing a travel ban. He had to cancel travel plans to go. And he’s really been a very moderate voice, someone who has spoken out against the military ouster of Morsi, but also was very vocal in his opposition to Morsi’s abuses, as well. So, the current regime is simply brooking no dissent whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we have to break, but I want you to stay there so when we come back we can talk about the possible presidential run of the military ruler right now, Mohamed Morsi appearing again in court, and just what was the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution like in Tahrir. Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a Democracy Now! correspondent. He’s speaking to us directly from Cairo. He is overlooking Tahrir Square. His piece in The Nation is “Egypt in Year Three.” Stay with us.

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Sharif Abdel Kouddous: 3 Years After Revolution, Egypt Faces Deadly Polarization & Growing Militancy

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