Egypt arrests Al Jazeera journalists, alleges ties to Muslim Brotherhood

The Egyptian government has broadened its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood with the arrest of the entire Al Jazeera news team here, prompting fears that reporting anything other than the government’s views could trigger reprisals.

The arrests are the latest in a violent campaign by the government against the Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ascended to the presidency. In the last week, three students have died and more than 300 have been involved in clashes on campuses with security forces.

In addition, the government accused the Muslim Brotherhood of killing 16 police officers in an attack for which a jihadist group later claimed responsibility.

Attackers also launched a grenade toward a commuter bus, injuring five and marking the first time civilians have been caught in the tit-for-tat battle between those seeking the return of the pre-Arab Spring status quo and those who believe Morsi’s July ouster by the military was unjustified.

Among journalists, the arrests Sunday night of the four-man Al Jazeera news team appeared to send a message that reporting on the turbulent events from the Brotherhood’s perspective could lead to more arrests and charges of terrorism.

Two of the four hold foreign passports: Al Jazeera English bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, who is Canadian, and correspondent Peter Greste, who is an Australian. Both Fahmy and Greste are well-known, award-winning journalists. Greste has worked with the BBC and CNN. Fahmy, who joined Al Jazeera in the fall, had previously been a freelance journalist whose worked appeared on CNN and in The New York Times and in McClatchy Newspapers.

They were arrested Sunday night at the Marriott Hotel, a luxury facility and former palace where the news agency has set up its offices after government officials shut down the Al Jazeera bureau in August. Officials said they were part of a “Marriott terror cell” that consorted with the Muslim Brotherhood to conduct “illegal interviews” and distribute “false news.”

The two others arrested are Egyptian nationals: cameraman Mohamed Fawzy, who was arrested at his home Sunday night, and producer Baher Mohamed, who was picked up early Monday.

“State security received information that a member of the (Muslim Brotherhood) used two suites in a Cairo hotel to hold meetings with other members of the organization and turned the suites into a press center,” according to a statement from the Interior Ministry. They “made live broadcasts of news that harms homeland security, spreading rumors and false news to Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel without permits.”

In a statement posted on its website, Al Jazeera confirmed the journalists’ arrests and demanded their release.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Monday night that it was “aware of reports on this matter.”

“Australian officials in Cairo are providing consular assistance,” a department spokesman said in a brief statement.

Egyptian state security officials told McClatchy that an Australian Embassy worker and translator visited Greste on Monday.

Police said they found cash and protest literature at the hotel that suggested the men were violating a new law that makes it illegal to protest against the government without permission from the government.

Both everyday Egyptians and government officials believe that Qatar-funded Al Jazeera is a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many appeared to welcome the arrests. The military-formed government began targeting Al Jazeera within hours of Morsi’s overthrow last summer.

Several of its journalists have been detained and one, Abdullah el Shamy, has been held since Aug. 14. His family said he was now on a hunger strike. His arrest and detention reaffirmed fears that as the state seeks to clamp down on opponents, dissent will no longer be allowed.

Security officials filmed the arrests and the interrogation of the Al Jazeera team. The journalists were taken to a Cairo prison and moved Monday morning to the state security prosecutor’s office in the Fifth Settlement section of Cairo, where officials told McClatchy they will further interrogate them before moving them back to prison.

Amr Adel, Fahmy’s lawyer, said he saw his client Monday during the interrogation by security officials. He said the questioning would continue on Wednesday and that Fahmy said he required medical care for a broken arm suffered a week before his arrest.

Adel said he did not believe his client had been mistreated. Adel said he has not seen the case against his client or what the charges were.

State media were quick to publicize the case, with some channels alleging the men had been operating a long-running terror cell in the hotel where they held secret meetings with the Brotherhood. This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit group, released a report that said Egypt was the third deadliest place for journalists in 2013, behind Syria and Iraq. Six journalists died in Egypt this year.

“Amid stark political polarization and related street violence, things deteriorated dramatically for journalists in Egypt,” the report concluded.