CAIRO - Three Al-Jazeera journalists on trial in Egypt directly asked the judge on Monday to release them, insisting the terrorism charges against them were preposterous.
The request by Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed came during a hearing in the trial. The trial, which opened on Feb.20, marks the first time journalists have been charged with terrorism-related offenses in Egypt, drawing international criticism.
The three, along 17 others, face terrorism-related charges based on the Egyptian authorities' accusations that they provided a platform to the Muslim Brotherhood group of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, which the government has declared a terrorist organization.
Their defenders say they were just doing their job as journalists.
Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed spoke after the judge took the unusual move of allowing all the defendants out of the cage, which serves as the dock in Egyptian trials, to approach the bench and address him directly with requests.
Besides the three journalists, five other defendants were in court Monday, with the rest being tried in absentia.
"The idea that I could have an association with the Muslim Brotherhood is frankly preposterous," Greste told the judge, Mohammed Nagi Shehata. He added that he was an award-winning journalist with years of experience.
"I ask for acquittal," demanded Fahmy, denying accusations that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He told the judge he was an alcohol-drinking liberal who lived abroad for a long time, and added: "Have you ever heard of a (Muslim) terrorist that drinks alcohol?"
Some of the other defendants spoke of abuse and torture during interrogation, including one student who said his teeth fell out from a from beating. Their lawyer, Shaaban Said, asked his clients be examined, demanding a forensic report instead of the quick medical examination that they underwent in prison, which found no proof of the torture.
Despite the gesture by the judge, he didn't accept the requests for release or bail. He ordered forensic examination of the defendants, and adjourned the session until April 10.
Egypt's military-backed government last December declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a decision that appeared to be largely based on bombings that a Sinai militant group has claimed responsibility for.
Days later, on Dec. 29, the Al-Jazeera journalists were arrested in their hotel room in Cairo, from where they worked after their offices had been repeatedly raided by authorities. The government accuses the station of being biased to Morsi and his group, a charge the Doha-based station denies.
The Brotherhood denies it practices or advocates violence, and says it only pursues protests against authorities. But the protests have grown increasingly violent with regular clashes between the police and Morsi supporters.
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. One of the defendants is the son of prominent Brotherhood leader Mohammed el-Beltagy.
Since Morsi's ouster by the military, Egypt has seen a heavy crackdown on his supporters, with several thousand detained and hundreds killed in political violence.