Egyptian prosecutors demanded Thursday the “maximum” penalty of 15-25 years in jail for all 20 defendants in the trial of Al-Jazeera journalists accused of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood.
Australian Peter Greste and two more reporters with Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English are among the accused, in a trial that has triggered international outrage amid fears of growing media restrictions in Egypt.
“We request that the court, without compassion or mercy, apply the maximum penalty for the abominable crimes they have committed… Mercy for such (people) will bring the entire society close to darkness,” said prosecutor Mohamed Barakat.
“Al-Jazeera is the master in the art of fraud,” Barakat told the court as he wrapped up his argument.
Of those on trial, 16 are Egyptians charged with joining the Brotherhood, which has been designated a “terrorist” organisation.
Four foreigners including Greste are charged with “spreading false news”, collaborating with and assisting the Egyptian defendants in their crimes by providing media material, editing and publishing it.
Nine of the 20 defendants are in detention, while others are being tried in absentia, including three foreign reporters who are abroad.
The Egyptians could be handed prison terms of 25 years, while the four foreigners could get 15 years, according to defence lawyer Ibrahim Abdel Wahab.
The trial is part of a relentless crackdown by the authorities installed by ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who won last week’s presidential election, against the Brotherhood since he ousted president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Retired field marshal Sisi has been the de facto ruler since Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president.
Sisi was elected president with 96.91 percent of the vote, crushing his sole rival, the leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi.
Since Morsi’s ouster, more than 1,400 people have been killed in a police crackdown, mostly his Islamist supporters. More than 15,000 have been jailed, hundreds of them sentenced to death after speedy trials.
– ‘We are victims’ –
Greste and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, the Cairo chief of Al-Jazeera English, were arrested in a hotel in the capital on December 29 after the police raided channel’s office.
The authorities have said the accused were working in Egypt without accreditation.
Greste and Fahmy were in a caged dock on Thursday along with seven co-defendants, including some students who have collaborated occasionally with the network.
Greste, Fahmy and others have regularly denounced the trial as “unfair” and political, charging that the evidence against them has been “fabricated”.
“Everything about this trial is a shame… nothing about this case makes any sense,” Fahmy said Thursday.
“We are treated worse than rapists and killers. We are victims, we are paying a political price.”
Greste and Fahmy have seen repeated requests to be released on bail rejected, while some co-defendants have often claimed to have been tortured in prison.
On Thursday, Fahmy’s lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr argued there were contradictions between the witnesses’ accounts and denounced a lack of evidence against his client.
“Being in possession of video footage and photos of anti-state protests is something natural for all journalists. If we judge Mohamed Fahmy for this, we should judge all journalists in this room,” he said.
Yousri al-Sayyid, another lawyer representing Greste and Baher Mohamed, the third detained Al-Jazeera English journalist, said it was the trial, and not his clients, that harmed Egypt’s reputation abroad.
“The defendants didn’t do anything (to tarnish) Egypt’s reputation. It is this case that is (tarnishing) Egypt’s reputation,” he said.
The trial was adjourned to June 16 for the court to hear the defence team’s pleas.
The trial comes against the backdrop of strained ties between Cairo and Doha.
Egypt’s interim government, which considers Al-Jazeera as the voice of Qatar, accuses Doha of backing the Brotherhood, while the Gulf state openly denounces the repression of the ousted president’s supporters.
Several Brotherhood leaders have fled to Doha following Morsi’s ouster, and some often appear on Al-Jazeera talk shows.