Egypt to Try Al Jazeera Staff on Terror-Related Charges

Egypt said it would try 20 people who work for the Al Jazeera television channel on charges they belong to a terrorist group, drawing U.S. allegations that the military-backed government is trying to muzzle dissent.

The defendants -- an Australian, two Britons, a Dutch citizen and 16 Egyptians -- are also suspected of spreading false news that endangers national security and harms Egypt’s image, according to a faxed statement from the prosecution yesterday. It said they used two suites in a luxury hotel in Cairo as a media center to pursue those aims.

Prosecutors said the defendants “fabricated footage” to create “unreal scenes” to mislead the world into thinking “the country is witnessing a civil war.” They defendants were also accused of serving the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have labeled a terrorist group.

The Egyptian government has cracked down on the Brotherhood since the army toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July. Many of its leaders, including Mursi, are on trial, and hundreds of supporters have been killed by security forces while protesting the military intervention.

Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar’s ruling family, a major Brotherhood supporter that backed Egypt with financial aid during Mursi’s one-year presidency.

‘Absurd’ Allegations

The channel said it hasn’t received any official notification of any developments in the case, and called the allegations against its employees “absurd, baseless and false.”

“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,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

While the Egyptian government said all 20 were Al Jazeera staff, the television station said five of its journalists are in detention. It said it now has no journalists reporting in Egypt.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said her government is “deeply concerned” about the stifling of free speech and press freedom in Egypt.

Egyptian authorities’ “targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms,” she said in a statement yesterday.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry Badr Abdel-Ati retorted that it is “unacceptable” for another country to meddle in Egypt’s judicial proceedings, which he described as independent and fair, state-run Middle East News Agency reported.

Authorities today said they arrested 10 Muslim Brotherhood members for “using their Facebook pages to incite against police,” according to an e-mailed statement from the Ministry of Interior.