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Egypt prosecutors interrogate Al-Jazeera team

31 December 2013, 09:11

Cairo - Egyptian state security prosecutors interrogated a team of journalists working for Al-Jazeera's English channel Monday a day after they were arrested in Cairo, a security official said Monday.

State security prosecutors usually investigate cases involving national security or terrorism. The official said the journalists from the Qatar-based network were being questioned for broadcasting without permission from a five-star hotel, the Cairo Marriott.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

It was not immediately clear if the team was facing other charges.

Egypt has long accused Al-Jazeera of bias in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. But so far its crackdown on the network has mostly targeted its Arabic service and a local branch focusing on Egypt coverage.

The Interior Ministry had said its arrest of the journalists was part of its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood group, which the government branded as a "terrorist" organisation last week.

The ministry accused one of those arrested, without naming him, of using the hotel suite as a media center for the group from which it broadcast "rumors and false news" and to hold organisational meetings for members of the Brotherhood.

The arrests came as authorities widen its crackdown on the movement. A Cairo court on Monday also sentenced 138 pro-Morsi protesters to two years in prison with labour on charges of rioting and vandalism.

In Washington, Marie Harf, the deputy spokesperson for the US state department, said the United States remains concerned about the interim Egyptian government's 25 December terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as ongoing detentions and arrests, including for peaceful demonstrators, civil society and political activists.

"We remain deeply concerned about all of the politically motivated arrests, detentions and charges in Egypt," she said Monday. "These actions raise questions about the rule of law being applied impartially and equitably and do not move Egypt's transition forward."

Al-Jazeera network said in a statement that four of its journalists based in Cairo were detained late Sunday, including Australian award-winning correspondent Peter Greste; Al-Jazeera English Bureau Chief Mohammed Fahmy, a producer and a cameraman. The network called their detention "arbitrary", and called for their immediate release.

Al-Jazeera's offices have been stormed several times before. State pressure on the channel has intensified since Egypt's July 3 coup, which followed demonstrations by millions calling for Morsi's ouster.

Al-Jazeera journalists and cameramen have been detained and a court order has barred its local affiliate from broadcasting in Egypt since September, accusing it of endangering national security. The affiliate, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Egypt, has continued to broadcast using its studios in Doha, Qatar, collaborating with freelancers and using amateur videos.

The Al-Jazeera English team kept an office in the hotel for months. The channel's offices were raided this summer and equipment confiscated in late summer as part of a broad state crackdown.

In its statement, the network said it was not officially banned in Egypt. "We condemn the arbitrary arrest of Al Jazeera English journalists working in Cairo and demand their immediate and unconditional release," the statement said.

Egypt's military-backed government has accused Al-Jazeera network of bias because its patron, Qatar, is perceived to have supported the Brotherhood, and was one of Morsi's biggest financial backers, injecting billions into the battered economy during his time in office.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the interior ministry said that the journalists had with them footage and protest materials from university students who staged a demonstration in support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, riot police clashed with students of the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo, who rallied against the military and in support of Morsi.

The government accuses the protesting students of seeking to derail midterm exams. Volleys of tear gas fell inside the campus for the third straight day.

In a new move that appears designed to limit student action, a Cairo court on Monday barred university students from protesting without a prior permission from their deans.

- AP


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