LONDON - A panel of international journalists made an impassioned plea on Wednesday to the Egyptian government to release five Al Jazeera journalists who until now had been held without charges, two of them since last summer.
The press conference in London came hours before Egyptian prosecutors charged almost 20 Al Jazeera employees with belonging to a "terrorist organization" and referring them to criminal court. A panel of editors and reporters from Al Jazeera, the BBC, Sky News and the Telegraph spoke at London's Frontline Club on Wednesday morning, demanding the release of the five Al Jazeera employees, including award-winning Australian correspondent Peter Greste.
"We're here to say to the Egyptian government that we're never going to forget they're there," said the Telegraph's chief political commentator, Peter Oborne. "We're always going to be campaigning to get them out."
The press conference marked one month since the Al Jazeera English team - Greste and Egyptian producers Mohamed Fahmy (who also holds Canadian citizenship) and Bahar Mohammed - were arrested in Cairo. They had been accused, but never formally charged until Wednesday, with broadcasting lies harmful to state security and for collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has now been listed as a terrorist organization. Two other Egyptian Al Jazeera journalists from sister networks, Abdullah al-Shami and Mohammed Badr, were arrested last summer while covering the protests against the military's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
"We were doing nothing more than our jobs there that any one of our colleagues would be doing in Egypt at the moment," said Al Jazeera English's head of newsgathering, Heather Allan, on Wednesday. "We have operated in Egypt now, Al Jazeera has, for 15 years. They're the most popular Arab channel by far across the Middle East and North Africa."
Shortly after the press conference, Egypt's state prosecution published charges against 20 Al Jazeera employees and referred them to criminal court. Of the 20, 16 are Egyptian and four are foreigners, including Greste. The Egyptians, the statement said, belong to "a terrorist organization" and the foreigners colluded with it in order to "[harm] the national image of the country."
Since arriving in Cairo's infamous Tora prison a month ago, Greste has managed to sneak out two letters that have been published online. In them, he detailed his confinement: "locked in my cell 24 hours a day for the past 10 days, allowed out only for visits to the prosecutor for questioning."
"I have no particular fight with the Egyptian government," he wrote, "just as I have no interest in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood or any other group here." Greste also noted that as Egyptians accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, producers Fahmy and Baher are being held "in the far more draconian 'Scorpion prison' built for convicted terrorists."
"Fahmy has been denied the hospital treatment he badly needs for a shoulder injury he sustained shortly before our arrest. Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul-destroying tedium." The general prosecution says that of the 20 charged, eight are in custody and 12 are "fugitives." No court date has yet been set for the trial.