CAIRO — Twenty journalists, including four foreigners, went on trial Thursday in Egypt on charges of aiding a terrorist organization, but the proceedings were quickly adjourned until March 5.
Only eight of the defendants, including Australian reporter Peter Greste, stood before the Giza governorate's criminal court. The rest remain at large and are being tried in absentia.
Greste was joined in the defendants' cage by Egyptian Canadian news producer Mohamed Fahmy and journalist Baher Mohamed. The trio, who were arrested Dec. 29, work for Al Jazeera's English network. Al Jazeera was banned from broadcasting in Egypt last year by an Egyptian court.
Other foreign defendants include two Britons and a Dutch freelancer, all of who managed to flee the country before charges were filed against them on Jan. 29.
The charges include illegal broadcasting and joining or cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood to falsify news in order to "give the appearance that Egypt is in a state of civil war" following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last July. The government has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
If convicted, the defendants could face prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years.
The trial has been condemned by local and international rights organizations as a sign that the right to dissent is rapidly eroding in Egypt.
"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," Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued Thursday.
"Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for the rights group.
In the courthouse there were some emotional scenes as Fahmy promised his fiancée a big wedding after his release and Greste told his brother that he loves their family.
Fahmy told reporters that he has been denied medical treatment for a shoulder he said he broke after being forced to sleep on the floor during his 54-day-long detention.
European Union representatives and personnel from the Australian and Canadian embassies in Cairo attended the trial.
Lawyers and family members were hoping defendants could be released on bail, but Judge Mohamed Nagui Shehata denied their request.