The main defence lawyers of Australian journalist Peter Greste and another Al-Jazeera reporter on trial in Cairo quit Thursday, accusing the satellite news station which employs them of working against Egypt.
Greste, watching proceedings from the caged dock, appeared taken aback when his lawyers announced to the judge that they were dropping the case, which has sparked international concern for the detained reporters.
The Australian is on trial with four other journalists for the Qatar-based broadcaster on charges of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and defaming Egypt.
Only three of the journalists are in prison, along with six other defendants in the case. The rest of the 20 defendants are abroad or in hiding.
In Thursday’s session, lead defence lawyer Farag Fathy said he and two colleagues also representing producer Baher Mohamed would no longer represent the reporters.
“Al-Jazeera is using my clients. I have emails from (the channel) telling me they don’t care about the defendants and care about insulting Egypt,” Fathy told the court.
He accused the Qatari channel in its coverage of the trial of “fabricating quotes” and attributing them to him.
An Al-Jazeera spokesman said: “The lawyer who made an outburst in court today made his position on the team untenable.
“We now have the best legal representation working in harmony, focused on getting our journalists out of jail.”
Greste earlier told reporters from the dock: “I am baffled. This is the first time we have heard of this problem.”
Egypt’s military-installed authorities have been incensed by Al-Jazeera’s coverage of their crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, overthrow by the army in July.
– Hunger-striker appeal rejected –
At least 1,400 people, mostly Islamists, have since been killed in street clashes and more than 15,000 jailed.
A third journalist, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, the Cairo bureau chief of Al-Jazeera English, is also in custody.
His lawyer, Ibrahim Abdel Wahab, accused prosecutors of trying to “hinder” his work.
“They asked us to pay 1.2 million pounds (around 123,000 euros, $168,704) to get copies of the evidence,” he told AFP.
One defendant in the dock on Thursday, Khaled Abdel Rahman, was arrested separately on April 22.
“I have never collaborated with Al-Jazeera and I never sent videos to the channel. I am not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and I don’t know why I am in this dock,” he told AFP.
In previous hearings, prosecutors had presented video footage and an array of photographs with no apparent link to the case.
The trial was adjourned until May 22.
Another Al-Jazeera journalist with its main Arabic channel, Abdullah Elshamy, has been detained for nine months and has yet to face trial.
He has been on hunger strike since January in protest at his detention.
On Thursday, a judge turned down an appeal from Elshamy against a May 3 decision to extend his detention for a further 45 days, his lawyer Shaaban Saeed told AFP.
Elshamy appeared gaunt in the dock and told reporters he was placed in solitary confinement in the maximum security wing of Cairo’s Torah prison.
“I am not allowed out of the cell,” he said.
He vowed to carry on his hunger strike, saying he was force-fed once on Monday but had not received any medical treatment.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, called for Elshamy’s immediate and unconditional release.
“By placing a hunger-striker in solitary confinement, instead of transferring him to a hospital or allowing him to see a doctor, the Egyptian authorities are deliberately putting his life and health at risk,” it said.