A $150 million compensation claim brought by Al Jazeera against the Egyptian government may jeopardize the trial of the network's reporter Peter Greste, his lawyer said.
Greste, an Australian national and reporter with Al Jazeera, has been held along with two of his colleagues since December 2013. The next stage of his trial will take place at a hearing on May 15. Crucially, it will be the first time the defense is able to present evidence. However, his lawyer Farag Fathy Farag told ABC that the claim launched by Al-Jazeera may damage Greste’s case.
"This action at this time will have a big impact on the status of the lawsuit... I wish that this action never took place, and if they wanted to do it, they should've waited until the end of the trial," Farag said, adding that compensation claim would likely impact on any sympathetic reaction he might have been able to garner from the court with regards to Greste.
Al Jazeera did not immediately respond to VICE News' request for comment.
Al Jazeera served Egypt with a Notice of Dispute last month through British law firm Carter-Ruck. The notice claims that Egypt’s military-backed government has damaged the Qatar-based network's business since it removed former president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power in July 2013. In the process, it alleged Egypt has breached both international law and the terms of a bilateral investment treaty with Qatar.
The case says that Al Jazeera had significant sums of money invested in Egypt and the government should reimburse the network the $150+ million it had lost since Morsi's ouster.
“Al Jazeera cannot permit this situation to continue. Egypt has severely disrupted Al Jazeera’s business activities in Egypt and has expropriated Al Jazeera’s investment without compensation,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
An Egyptian administrative court banned Al Jazeera’s Egyptian channel Mubasher Misr along with three other channels on September 3 2013 on the grounds that they supported Morsi and the brotherhood. The network has also reported that its broadcasts have been jammed, its offices repeatedly raided and its staff detained since Morsi’s ouster.
Greste's fellow detainees are Al Jazeera English's Canadian-Egyptian Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, a local producer. All three have been held since December and are accused of doctoring film footage, besmirching Egypt’s reputation, and aiding a terrorist organization — which the Brotherhood was declared on Christmas day in 2013.
Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste and producers Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy were returned to an Egyptian court for a sixth time on April 22.
Abdullah Elshamy, an Al Jazeera Arabic journalist, has been held without charge since August 2013 and has been on hunger strike since mid-January. At his last court appearance had lost 77 pounds.
Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed are being tried along with five Egyptian students who were arrested separately and are also accused of links with the brotherhood.
The trial has been criticized by rights groups and sparked protest and a global social media campaign under the #FreeAJStaff banner. The US, UK and European Union have also called for the Al Jazeera trio's release.
In an unfortunate coincidence, the last hearing took place on May 3, which is World Press Freedom Day. In honor of the occasion, Fahmy was awarded the World Press Freedom Award by the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.
Fahmy was allowed an attempt to explain the nature of journalism to the judge, that it was normal the team would have contact with both members of the security forces and government as well as with opposition figures. The judge was unimpressed, however, and reportedly wished them a “happy" World Press Freedom Day then denied bail and adjourned proceedings until May 15.
The prosecution’s case has been somewhat bizarre. Evidence against the accused has included audio recordings — claimed to be of conversations between the students — which were so muffled that even the judge admitted he couldn’t understand them.
Previously, footage shown to the court in an attempt to prove the three journalists’ guilt included trotting donkeys and horses from a Sky News Arabia program about animal hospitals, and part of a BBC documentary on Somalia. Al Jazeera’s material was used too, but an interview about sheep farming was shown alongside interviews with Brotherhood members.
In an earlier court appearance, everything found in the defendants' hotel room was presented as evidence.
Authorities claim that the trial process is free, fair and transparent, but journalists have been kicked out of proceedings on more than one occasion.
Despite the worldwide campaign, many Egyptians see Al Jazeera as having worked to undermine Egypt. This is partly a result of the perception that Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood. The tiny Gulf state supported Islamists throughout the Middle East, and pumped billions of dollars into Egypt's economy while Morsi was in power. There is also a broad perception that the network, particularly its Egyptian operations, was biased against the new military-backed government.
Public hostility is high. When covering pro-government demonstrations in Egypt, journalists are routinely asked if they work for the Al Jazeera, and a number have reported being attacked after usually false accusations of being on the network's payroll.
All three of the journalists on trial worked for Al Jazeera English, which is not banned, rather than the network’s Egyptian arm. This was a difference which Farag was attempting to stress in his defense of Greste. He now fears this may be jeopardized by the new case brought today by the network as a whole.
The future is not looking bright for press freedom in Egypt. Yesterday, the country's former army chief and likely next president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told a group of newspaper editors that they should not make too much of a fuss in asking for freedom of speech.
Doing so would put national security at risk, he said. Instead, he suggested that the press should concentrate on support of policies which back his goal of “preserving the Egyptian state,” and shouldn’t expose corruption within state institutions while the new government gets on its feet.
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