The Hidden Faces of the Al Jazeera Trial
Not all the all the accused in this infamously unfair court proceeding were journalists. Were some of them really Muslim Brotherhood activists?
CAIRO — Shadi Ibrahim is nervous, glancing around and wary of passers-by when he speaks. He is worried he’ll suddenly be re-arrested in the street—hardly paranoia, after his friend Sohaib Saad was snatched from the street in southern Cairo.
Ibrahim, Saad, and a third friend, Khaled Abdelraoof, are among the 17 defendants initially charged alongside Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy, and Baher Mohammed in what has become known in Egypt as “The Marriot Cell Case.” All 17, including Al Jazeera broadcasters tried in absentia such as journalist Sue Turton and producer Dominic Kane, stand accused of using a suite at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo as their base for a grand conspiracy to defame Egypt’s current government. The case centers on the group’s connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, who were removed from power in a popularly-backed coup in the summer of 2013.
Six months after the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in June 2013, the Brotherhood was officially declared a terrorist group in Egypt. In the days following, journalists on the ground in Egypt who worked with the Qatari Al Jazeera network were arrested, and a collection of other suspects were rounded up over the next week.
Most were released on bail in February after spending over a year in prison, while Peter Greste was deported back to Australia on February 1. Now the defendants are attempting to fight their way through an achingly long, drawn-out retrial. Greste’s name remains on the list of accused in apparent contradiction to a new law stating that foreigners arrested in Egypt can be deported to stand trial in the home country.
But not everyone on the charge sheet is a journalist, something that Al Jazeera defendant Mohammed Fahmy is keen to point out. Fahmy accuses Saad, Ibrahim, and Abdelraoof of being Muslim Brotherhood “agents and activists,” taking money directly from the network headquarters in Doha in exchange for the sale of footage which, he says, his Al Jazeera English bureau knew nothing about. But more than this, he accuses them of being “part of the struggle”—using funds from the sale of the footage to pay for posters and food for Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and even organizing pro-Brotherhood protests themselves. “When you sit with Shadi, Khaled, and Sohaib in prison all day and hear what they were actually doing —they were pretty hardcore,” he says.
Ibrahim himself paints a more nuanced picture. At the retrial hearing on June 11, he arrived at the Tora Prison courthouse wearing a T-shirt that said “idea [sic] never die,” his glasses hung around his neck like an aging librarian’s. Ibrahim presents a mix of youthful enthusiasm and cynicism that comes from having seen a revolution and a counter-revolution on the streets of his country before the age of 24. As a student at Ain Shams University, he rose among the ranks to become the Vice President of the Egyptian Students Union, a job which at the time required coordination between Egypt’s military, the April 6th labor movement, leftist groups —and at times the Muslim Brotherhood’s student wing.
His friends Sohaib and Khalid, he says, had simply been filming protests on their smartphones since the January 2011 uprising, and selling the footage via a local news agency which went to a variety of foreign outlets, including Al Jazeera. “They weren’t working to get money, but because they loved the work,” he says. “They covered stuff and put it on Facebook. They didn’t care who’d use this material.” He smiles a little as he adds: “Social media is a headache to dictatorships.”
On New Year’s Eve 2013, the three friends were taking a taxi to the Mokattam Hills which overlook Cairo, planning to have a barbecue and camp. They were stopped and arrested at a checkpoint, where the police searched their smartphones and found protest footage, not just of the June 30 protests which toppled Mohammed Morsi but of the Raba’a Adawiya Square protest in August 2013, where at least 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were gunned down in the street. “So, they thought we were Brotherhood,” he says. Ibrahim himself has never sold footage, or called himself a journalist of any kind. The trio were then taken to the State Security building in southern Cairo.
Ibrahim says that he was asked, “When did you work with Peter?” during questioning, in reference to Peter Greste. He replied that all three were students. “You tried to get money as you had no work,” he recalls being told by his interrogator.
In signed statements to the public prosecutor, Abdelraoof and Saad said that they had sold their footage via a man named Alaa Adel, the owner of the news agency, but that Adel had never informed them who the footage had been sold to. Abdelraoof also stated that once he heard from protesters that his footage had aired on Al Jazeera, he asked for money. All three students admitted to having some connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and a previous allegiance, in part because of the violence they witnessed during the Raba’a dispersal.
“When we gave these statements, we didn’t know we were speaking to the prosecutor. We thought we were still talking to the secret police—we were still blindfolded,” says Ibrahim. He claims that the three were open about their independence from the Brotherhood and opposition to the regime when they spoke. “Not everyone at Raba’a was a Brotherhood supporter,” he adds. Ibrahim also states that he was tortured by being hung from his bound hands before giving the statement.
When the three arrived at the infamous Scorpion wing of Tora prison, Fahmy and Ibrahim stated that they bore the marks of physical abuse, as the black blindfolds they had been wearing for three days straight were tied so tightly around their faces that all three had nosebleeds and pressure wounds close to their ears. Baher Mohammed, Mohammed Fahmy, and Ibrahim all attest that the first time the whole group of defendants met was behind bars.
For Ibrahim, this is a trial about the principle of the right to dissent, not about press freedom. “I don’t care what people say. I just care what I saw,” he says. His lawyer, Saban Saeed, agrees, arguing that this is how they will fight their case. “The students are wrongly accused,” he said. “They weren’t part of the Al Jazeera group at all.”
Baher Mohammed views the students as youthful activists, “keen on holding on to their principles,” but not Brotherhood members. "Even when we were inside, they were criticizing the Brotherhood,” he says. He fears for the welfare of the group, but like Fahmy emphasizes that he wants the professional journalists to be separated from the young activists and sometime journalists. “Is protesting something a crime?” he asks. “They asked for their rights, and got put in jail.”
Both Mohammed and Fahmy fear the politicization of a trial which strikes at the heart of the relationship between Egypt and its newest foe, Qatar, who backed the Muslim Brotherhood while they were in power and whose royal family owns the Al Jazeera network. But for Mohammed there is a personal dimension to this too, as one of the other defendants is the wife of a childhood friend.
Noura Hassan al-Banna appears to have been included on the list simply because of the similarity between her name and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. She is not known to be a journalist, or an activist, but her husband had remained Baher Mohammed’s closest friend—until she was put on the charge sheet alongside him. Mohammed says he had no idea this was the case until he encountered her in the witness box, where she refused to speak with him. When he attempted to call her husband after being allowed out on bail, he hung up the phone.
Mohammed says that his childhood friend believes he is responsible for his wife’s arrest, and despite repeated attempts to reconcile with al-Banna and her husband, they don’t believe him. This led to a confrontation after a retrial hearing this year, where Mohammed told her: “If you believe I’m behind all of this, you’re mistaken. I would never do that.” He shakes his head sadly at the memory. “The thing is, it’s in these moments that you find out who your real friends are,” he says. “In the end, all I care about is the opinion of the journalistic community.”
Then there are those who remain behind bars, or have been mysteriously rearrested. Khalid Abdel-Rahman is a former engineer who established a youth center and is also on the charge sheet. He has remained in detention after being accused of involvement in the militant “Helwan Cell” group. When he appeared, shackled, in the courtroom on June 11, his family held up a baby as he gestured over the gate separating defendants from observers, having been denied visiting rights for the past seven months. Likewise student Khaled Abdelraouf, who was added to the list of accused in the Helwan cell case a week before the other defendants were released on bail in February, and so has remained in prison since December 2013.
Sohaib Saad was snatched from the street in Cairo’s southern Maadi district on June 3, along with three others, including Magdy Ashour, who starred in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. His family spent over a week frantically trying to locate him inside Egypt’s labyrinthine security system.
Saad is one of 163 forced disappearances of activists and students that have occurred since April 1 this year, according to the prisoners’ rights group Freedom for the Brave. Judge Hassan Farid, who presides over the Al Jazeera case, has criticized his absence from the courtroom on two occasions, stating during one hearing on the June 4 that “if he doesn’t show up, I will rearrest him,” apparently unaware that at that time, even Saad’s family didn’t know where exactly he was being held, or why.
He has since appeared in the Istikbal wing of Cairo’s imposing Tora prison complex—the same sprawling prison which houses the courthouse where the Al Jazeera retrial is being held. The reasons for his rearrest are still unknown, likewise whether he’ll even be brought to court for the next retrial session.
Saad’s brother, Osama, “denied any connection between Sohaib and Al Jazeera” when contacted by phone. “He was forced to admit that due to torture,” he said. “We don’t know where he is, why he was taken—he didn’t try to escape or hide after he was released,” he added. Like Ibrahim, he denied that his brother belonged to any one political party, but attested that he is clearly opposed to the current government.
The retrial is due to resume on Thursday. For now, Ibrahim is looking over his shoulder when he walks in public. He often refrains from posting things on social media, or using the Internet at all, assuming that he is under surveillance. He says that some of his family and friends have refrained from contacting him, fearful that this could mark them as targets. “Now, I’m a terrorist here, part of this cell created to destroy Egypt by working with the news. I made trouble—that’s the story the media is telling about us,” he says. “Not everyone believes this, some know that these charges are a joke,” he adds, perhaps more in hope than expectation.