CAIRO: A rights group on Thursday denounced Egypt's stand on freedom of expression as 20 employees of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network went on trial accused of membership in a terrorist organization and also for aiding it.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch described as "politicized" the charges against the Al-Jazeera employees, who include acting chief of bureau Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian, correspondent Peter Greste, an Australian and Egyptian Baher Mohamed.
"Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views," said a statement by Human Rights Watch.
"Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. He added their prosecution "shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating."
The charges against the Al-Jazeera employees are based on the government's designation in December of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which ousted Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi hails, as a terrorist organization.
Egyptian authorities have long depicted Al-Jazeera as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood. But police largely targeted its Arabic service and its Egyptian affiliate, which remained one of the few TV stations to provide a platform for the Brotherhood after the government's crackdown on the group since Morsi's ouster.
Al-Jazeera denies bias and has demanded the release of its reporters, whose arrest sparked an outcry from rights groups and journalist advocacy organizations. Authorities say Al-Jazeera reporters worked without accreditation.
Thursday's hearing, held at a police school south of the capital, is being held amid tight security. After waiting for several hours, reporters were allowed into the courtroom, but were not allowed to bring in video or other cameras.
Prosecutors allege that the 20 Al-Jazeera employees set up a media center for the Brotherhood in two suites in a luxury Nile-side hotel. A video of their arrest leaked to a private TV channel clearly shows Fahmy and Greste in a hotel suite with TV equipment scattered on desks and on the floor.
A statement by the prosecution says the defendants "manipulated pictures" to create "unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state" and broadcast scenes to aid "the terrorist group in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion."
An official from the high state security prosecution team investigating the case said Fahmy was an alleged Brotherhood member, led the media operation that "fabricated" footage and broadcast it with the "aim of harming Egypt's reputation." The official spoke in December when the 20 were referred to trial. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The case against Al-Jazeera is proceeding amid a crackdown by the government against the Brotherhood and even liberal and secular leaders of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, many of whom complain about what they see as the return of the Mubarak-era police state.
The trial is also going ahead as the nation's military chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is apparently preparing to announce his candidacy in presidential elections due in the Spring. The popular el-Sissi is likely to win by a landslide.