CAIRO (AP) — Defense lawyers in Egypt's trial of three journalists and 17 others cross-examined prosecution witnesses Monday, grilling them over seized equipment and footage shot by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English that the prosecution says undermines national security.
The trial has drawn international uproar. The group faces terrorism-related charges, based on authorities' accusations that they provided a platform to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, but the journalists' defenders say they were just doing their job.
The content of footage and equipment seized by authorities in the case was the focus of the hearing Monday. The prosecution's claim is that Al-Jazeera footage is edited to exaggerate unrest in Egypt.
Defense lawyers sought to discredit two of the witnesses, a police officer and a technical expert, that the prosecution was relying upon to make its case. Defendants denied they doctored footage.
Only eight defendants, including Australian journalist Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy, were in court. Twelve, including three foreigners, are being tried in absentia. The trial was adjourned to March 31.
Monday's session comes after Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour has responded to letters from Fahmy's family and Greste, reassuring them that the trial will be fair and expedited.
The government has long accused Al-Jazeera, the Arabic service in particular, of being biased toward the Brotherhood.
In December, the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, based largely on bombings that a Sinai militant group has claimed. The group denies it practices violence.
Days after that declaration, the journalists were arrested in their hotel room in Cairo, from which they worked after their offices have been repeatedly raided by authorities.
Of the other 17 defendants, six are employed by al-Jazeera, according to the network. The others have been identified as Brotherhood members and supporters, activists, and a journalist who visited Fahmy at the hotel.
The case has received worldwide attention, as it marks the first time journalists have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. It came in the midst of a crackdown on Brotherhood members and other Islamists in the wake of the July military ouster of President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against him.
In the latest trial of suspected Morsi supporters, some 529 defendants were sentenced to death in the southern city of Minya in one of the swiftest trials in Egypt's modern history on charges of murder, attempted murder and violence against police. Rights groups and others have criticized the verdict.
In contrast, the judge in the al-Jazeera trial let lawyers grill witnesses for hours. At one point the judge told a lawyer to "slow down and take it easy."
Fahmy denied the journalists were members of the Brotherhood, an accusation levied against him personally.
"I am a journalist. My only weapon is a camera and computer," he shouted at the opening of the trial from the cage in which defendants are held.
Khaled Abou Bakr, Fahmy's lawyer, challenged the arresting officers as to whether they had ascertained who owned what in the large haul of computers and recording equipment provided as evidence.
The footage itself that the prosecution claims undermines national security has not yet been viewed. Abou Bakr said it includes interviews with politicians, mostly secular ones, and a soccer game.
Asking a largely rhetoric question, Abou Bakr said: "Is conveying the opinion of any person who may oppose the state, the current regime, considered a crime?"
The witness responded: "I don't get the question."