Egypt begins trial for head of journalists union, 2 members

CAIRO: The trial began Saturday for the head of Egypt's journalists union and two board members charged with spreading false news and harbouring reporters wanted by authorities, with one defendant saying it was part of a government plan to create a "state of fear."

Union head Yahya Qalash and board members Khaled el-Balshy and Gamal Abdel-Rahim showed up at the downtown Cairo court with some dozen defense lawyers led by former presidential candidate Khaled Ali.

In a 10-minute hearing, the defense requested a postponement to allow them time to study the case.

The defendants were greeted with chants of "Long live the struggle of journalists!" and "Hold your head high, you are a journalist!" by about two dozen supporters when they came out of the courthouse, where scores of riot police were deployed, backed by armored vehicles.

Amnesty International condemned the case last week, describing it as part of a "draconian" crackdown on freedom of expression.

"We are dealing with a case that must be seen in the wider context of a society where there is an all-out attack on freedoms, closure of public sphere and efforts to establish a state of fear," el-Balshy, who heads the union's freedoms commission, told reporters before Saturday's hearing.

The three were questioned for hours by prosecutors last Sunday. On Monday, they initially refused to post bail of 10,000 pounds ($1,100) each and were detained at a police station in central Cairo. They were released the next day following their referral to trial and after bail was posted.

The move against the three came less than a month after Qalash called for the interior minister's resignation and a presidential apology over the arrest of two journalists wanted for inciting protests who had taken refuge inside the union's downtown headquarters.

Authorities deny that police forcibly entered the building, saying they had an arrest warrant and coordinated in advance with board members. Qalash later sought to defuse tensions, dropping his demand for a presidential apology and not repeating his demand for the minister to step down.