CAIRO, Egypt — May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. This year, it is also the day that three Al Jazeera journalists, imprisoned in Egypt since their arrest on Dec. 29, come to court for the seventh session in their ongoing trial.
The prosecution of Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, producer Baher Mohamed and Australian former BBC correspondent Peter Greste in Egypt has made headlines around the world.
“This is The Mistake — ‘the’ with a capital T,” Egypt's investment minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour told the BBC in March, referring to the embarrassment the trial had caused the country.
The three journalists, two of whom are award-winning veteran correspondents, are accused of fabricating news reports to aid the Muslim Brotherhood, the political organization to which Mohammed Morsi, ousted by the military in June, belongs. The Muslim Brotherhood, as of September, was formally designated a terrorist organization by the new military-backed regime.
Observers are baffled by the charges against the Al Jazeera journalists, and say the three have been swept up into the Egyptian establishment's vendetta against the Al Jazeera network, which they see as a propaganda organ for the Brotherhood.
Egypt once had the strongest, most professional judiciary in the Arab world; now it is making headlines for all the wrong reasons — persecuting the political opposition. But blended with the cruelty has been a shot of surrealism.
Here are some of the most absurd elements of the trial so far.
1. The journalists' arrest was filmed, set to music from "Thor: the Dark World" and broadcast on national television in February
2. The shooting of Gatsby the dog
When police came to arrest producer Baher Mohamed on the evening of Dec. 29, they shot his dog, Gatsby. His brother told GlobalPost that the dog was called Gatsby because his master had enjoyed the recent Baz Luhrmann blockbuster. In a letter from prison, Mohamed alleged that police had also stolen his wife's jewelry during the raid.
3. Who has been charged
The three journalists are brought into the caged dock each session, accused of aiding Al Jazeera, alongside five others who are alleged to have assisted them. When asked by reporters present whether they knew the other men who had joined them in the cage, the journalists shouted back that they had only met for the first time that day.
Several of the other men — mostly students — claim that they have been tortured in custody. One is the son of a senior Brotherhood official.
4. Charging totally unrelated people and then letting them leave the country because their names were misspelled on the charge sheet.
Dutch journalist Rena Netjes arrives at Schiphol Airport after being accused by Egypt of being part of a 'terror cell' involving Qatari-owned broadcaster Al-Jazeera. (REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Rena Netjes never worked for Al Jazeera, but the Dutch journalist met with bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy the week before his arrest, and that was apparently enough to put her on the radar of the security services. Fortunately for her, a prosecuting official mistranscribed her name from a document as 'Johanna Identity' (Johanna is her middle name).
The Dutch Embassy in Cairo managed to figure out who the prosecution were after, and had her whisked out of the country with the agreement of Egypt's foreign ministry (proof that even in the Egyptian government, there are plenty who are skeptical about this prosecution).
5. The judge often wears sunglasses in court. So did a key witness.
6. The judge has used a lighter to open boxes of evidence
Not this particular lighter (David J. Fred/Wikimedia Commons)
When the contents of the journalists' hotel room were presented to the court in sealed boxes, the judge made several attempts at opening them, first stabbing them with a pen and later with a lighter. He finally called on an assistant to help him out.
7. The video evidence: footage of a horse, and a report on sheep farming
Not this particular horse (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
The court has been shown an array of videos with little apparent link to the prosecution's contention that the journalists and their fellow defendants have worked for a terrorist cell.
Several clips show raw footage from packages the Al Jazeera bureau was working on in Egypt, while other material seems to have been left on their hard drives, which were seized by the authorities, from previous work. This has included a video of a trotting horse, a press conference from Kenya (in English, with no translation provided to the Arabic-speaking judge), and a video report on sheep farming.
Many of the videos appeared to pre-date the journalists' work for the channel in Cairo.
8. Ironically, the journalists have been given some great interview opportunities.
@Repent11: Had a unique birthday flanked with family members in prison. Shared cake with MB Supreme Guide, former PM & co & the guards !
— Mohamed Fadel Fahmy (@Repent11) April 29, 2014
Since former president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a July 3 military coup, Egypt's prison population has swelled by over 16,000 people. The journalists share a cell block with leading members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
During the journalists' imprisonment, Mohamed Fahmy has kept his cellmates entertained by running a mock chat show between different political figures on his cell block called 'Scorpion Live,' named after the notorious Scorpion Prison in which he was held for a period.
On his birthday last week, the Cairo bureau chief's Twitter account, run by supporters, joked that he had enjoyed a 'unique' birthday inside prison, sharing his birthday cake in prison with the former prime minister Hazem Qandil.
Although Fahmy is accused of belonging to the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood, he actually took part in mass demonstrations against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-aligned government on June 30 last year and another on July 26 to "authorize" the authorities to crack down on the Brotherhood.
9. Unintelligible evidence
In the journalists' penultimate hearing, a recording that allegedly implicated some of the student defendants was played in court. Poor sound quality and bad interference made the recording unintelligible, and the judge asked for it to be repeated several times before demanding to know if anyone else knew what was being said.
10. The T-shirt worn by this court official as he operated the door to the caged dock:
— Orla Guerin (@OrlaGuerin) April 22, 2014
— Sharif Kouddous (@sharifkouddous) March 23, 2014
The ostriches at Tora prison story goes back to the 60s, when the Egyptian regime was doing research on how to bury one's head in the sand.
— Karl Sharro (@KarlreMarks) March 23, 2014
Reporters emerged from one court session to find ostriches in a cage on the back of a truck parked outside the prison complex where the trial is held. It turns out there is an ostrich farm in the prison.
A few observers briefly questioned whether the ostriches might have been arrested, a less absurd idea in Egypt than it might seem. A shark, a pigeon, a stork, and a donkey have all been investigated or detained by the authorities in recent years.
12. These are not the only journalists in prison
Abdullah Elshamy (Elshamy family handout)
Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy has been held without charge since Aug. 14. He has now passed 100 days on hunger strike.
And there are others, including Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a 27-year-old Egyptian freelance photographer. Two journalists from the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Rassd News Network have also been jailed after being tried before a military court, allegedly for their role in publishing a leaked recording of Egypt's strongman presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al Sisi.