(Repeats to widen distribution; no change to text) (Adds U.S. State Department comment)
By Shadia Nasralla
CAIRO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Egypt will put an Australian, two Britons and a Dutchwoman on trial for aiding 16 Egyptians belonging to a “terrorist organisation”, the public prosecutor said on Wednesday, describing the four as Al Jazeera correspondents.
Three of the Qatar-based television network’s journalists - Peter Greste, an Australian; Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian national; and Baher Mohamed - were detained in Cairo on Dec. 29 and remain in custody, Al Jazeera said.
The identities of the other foreigners mentioned by the prosecutor were not immediately clear. The Dutch Embassy declined to comment. The British Embassy said it was aware of the report and was seeking more information.
In a statement, the prosecutor said the four had published “lies” that harmed the national interest and had supplied money, equipment and information to the 16 Egyptians. The foreigners were also accused of using unlicensed broadcasting equipment.
The 16 Egyptians are to face trial for belonging to a “terrorist organisation”, an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been protesting against the government since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July.
The government has declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist group”. The Brotherhood says it is a peaceful organisation.
Two journalists from Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, Abdullah Al Shami and Mohamed Bader, have been in detention for five months, according to Al Jazeera’s website.
Responding to the prosecutor’s statement, Al Jazeera said its five detained journalists had not been officially informed of developments in their case.
“The world knows these allegations against our journalists are absurd, baseless and false,” the broadcaster said in an emailed statement. “This is a challenge to free speech, to the right of journalists to report on all aspects of events, and to the right of people to know what is going on.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was “deeply concerned about the ongoing lack of freedom of expression and press freedom in Egypt” and urged the government to reconsider trying the journalists.
“We are alarmed by reports today of additional journalists facing charges, including the Al Jazeera journalist,” she said. “Any journalist, regardless of affiliation, must not be targets of violence, intimidation or politicized legal action. They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in Egypt.”
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that of the four non-Egyptian defendants, only Greste was in custody, and the rest were “on the run from the law”. It did not name them.
Both state and private Egyptian media have been whipping up anti-Brotherhood sentiment, suggesting anyone associated with the group is a traitor and a threat to national security.
The crackdown on dissent has raised questions about Egypt’s democratic credentials three years after an uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes of greater freedoms.
Adel Fahmy, the brother of Al Jazeera producer Mohamed Fahmy, voiced dismay at the prosecutor’s charges. “They just want to magnify this case, for no reason, maybe for political interests, nothing makes sense any more,” he told Reuters.
“Mohamed is the furthest in the world from being related to a terrorist group or the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Al Jazeera’s Cairo offices have been closed since July 3 when security forces raided them hours after the army ousted Mursi following mass protests against his rule.
Egyptian media have referred to the Al Jazeera journalists as “The Marriott Cell” because they worked from that hotel.
Qatar was a strong financial backer of Egypt during Mursi’s year in power and the Gulf Arab state has vehemently criticised his overthrow and the ensuing crackdown on the Brotherhood.
The charges against the journalists are likely to further strain ties between Doha and Cairo.
Human rights groups have condemned the arrests of journalists in Egypt.
“Today’s decision by Egypt’s chief prosecutor to refer a number of journalists to trial on alleged terrorism-related charges is a major setback for media freedom in Egypt,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today, that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities.” (Additional reporting by Amena Bakr and Bill Trott; Editing by Michael Georgy, Alistair Lyon and Mohammad Zargham)