Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Journalists’ trial resumes

The trial of the head of the Press Syndicate and two board members resumed this week without much fanfare, reports Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

The confrontation between the Interior Ministry and the Press Syndicate has come to a near standstill, even as the trial of its chairman, Yehia Qallash, and two board members, Khaled Al-Balshi and Gamal Abdel-Rahim, resumed on Saturday. The men are charged with providing a hideout for two wanted journalists at the syndicate’s downtown Cairo headquarters.

At the Abdin courthouse this week, there were more lawyers than journalists who had come to express their solidarity with Qallash and his two colleagues, including the head of the Lawyers Syndicate, Sameh Ashour.

Anti-riot police had surrounded the courthouse since the early morning, allowing only lawyers to attend the session. Hardly any journalists came to attend the trial, unlike on the opening session on 4 June. Qallash and Abdel-Rehim, the syndicate’s secretary-general, also did not show up for the trial, while Al-Balshi, the head of the syndicate’s Freedoms Committee, stood outside the courtroom.

Tarek Negeida, a lawyer representing Qallash, presented a long list of demands to presiding judge Wael Khedr, known for issuing lengthy prison sentences against young people who have taken part in protests over the past two years.

Negeida asked the court’s permission to question all the officers from the Interior Ministry and the National Security Services who took part in raiding the headquarters of the Press Syndicate on 1 May to arrest journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka, who had taken refuge there.

Arrest warrants were issued for Badr and Al-Sakka shortly before the planned protests on 25 April against the agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the country’s maritime borders. Badr is the editor-in-chief of the Yanayer website, a small news organisation that claims loyalty to the 25 January Revolution and runs items criticising President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

Under the agreement, Egypt ceded control over the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, provoking protests by opposition groups and parties.

After being on the run for nearly 10 days, Badr and Al-Sakka entered the Press Syndicate and declared they would stay in the building until the charges against them were dropped, claiming they were being prosecuted over critical items published on the Yanayer website.

Some 24 hours after they had sought refuge in the eight-floor building in central Cairo, police and National Security officers in plain clothes raided the syndicate, an unprecedented measure in its 75-year history, and arrested Badr and Al-Sakka.

The two men have been referred to trial with seven other defendants, including prominent lawyer Malek Adli. The nine have been charged with joining an illegal organisation that aims at toppling the regime.

The unprecedented raid on the syndicate led to further measures by the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor-general, especially after Qallash convened an emergency general assembly meeting at the syndicate to protest against what he considered to be the illegal entry of the building.

On 4 May, journalists demanded the removal of the interior minister and an official apology from Al-Sisi.

Instead, however, Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek issued a harshly worded statement saying that the police had not violated the law and pressing charges against Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim.

The three men have been charged with aiding fugitives by providing them with a hideout and spreading false rumours. They face between three and five years in prison if convicted, according to Negeida.

Qallash and the thousands of journalists who attended the 4 May emergency meeting insist that the Interior Ministry violated Press Syndicate bylaws, which state that should the police want to enter the syndicate headquarters, the chairman of the syndicate, or a designated representative, must be present.

After the three syndicate leaders were summoned for questioning in May, prosecutors ordered their release on bails of LE10,000 each.

However, the three refused to pay and denied all the charges. Facing the prospect of their staying in prison until they are sent for trial, their lawyers reportedly decided to unilaterally pay the bails, and the three men were released a day later after being held overnight at the Qasr Al-Nil police station.

Meanwhile, Qallash came under heavy fire from pro-government journalists and the presenters of several television talk shows. He was accused of turning the Press Syndicate into a front to criticise the president and the agreement signed with Saudi Arabia because of his Nasserist and leftist political background.

The editors of the daily Al-Ahram, the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) and other government-owned publications organised parallel meetings to demand the removal of Qallash and new elections at the Press Syndicate.

Qallash’s two-year term as chairman ends in March 2017.

As suspected terrorist groups continue their deadly attacks against policemen in Cairo and Sinai, the government has managed to turn the tide against the Press Syndicate and journalists in general, claiming they have been raising unjustified demands at a time when the country is facing many problems, topped by terrorism.

The mobilisation of journalists against the Interior Ministry has receded, and nearly all newspapers have now backtracked on a decision by the Press Syndicate’s general assembly on 4 May not to publish the name or photograph of Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar.

During the second session of the trial on Saturday, Negeida also asked the court to summon Badr and Al-Sakka for questioning from the Tora Prison where they have been held since 1 May.

He insisted that Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim had no prior knowledge that Badr and Al-Sakka planned to organise a sit-in at the syndicate’s headquarters. “It makes no sense to argue that a public place like the Press Syndicate could ever be turned into a hideout,” Negeida told the court.

“We might also wonder how the three defendants could be charged with hiding Badr and Al-Sakka, when both had announced publicly that they were heading to the syndicate to avoid police harassment and raids on their family homes,” he added.

Negeida recalled several occasions when journalists wanted by the police for publication offences had sought refuge at the syndicate’s headquarters until negotiations had been held with the authorities. In 2010, journalists Ibrahim Eissa and Abdel-Galil Sharnoubi held a sit-in at the syndicate’s headquarters after arrest warrants were issued against them.

“At that time, the head of the Press Syndicate negotiated with the Interior Ministry and prosecutors until a dignified solution was found, while at the same respecting the laws and court orders,” Negeida said.

“Even former interior minister Habib Al-Adli under ousted former president [Hosni] Mubarak never took the step of raiding the Press Syndicate’s headquarters or pressing official charges against its chairman and board members,” he added in statements to Al-Ahram Weekly.

After the trial was adjourned until 25 June, Al-Balshi told the Weekly that the moves against the journalists were “a clear attempt to end the syndicate’s role in defending freedom of expression and criticising government policy.”

Said Al-Balshi, “But we will never give up, even if the price is to end up in prison.”

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