Cairo: Peter Greste held onto the black steel of the defendant's cage in a Cairo courtroom on Thursday, head bowed, eyes cast downward.
Two senior members of his legal team had just resigned and the remaining defence lawyers were still arguing with the judge, three months into the trial, about getting access to key prosecution evidence against Greste, an Australian journalist, and his colleagues from the al-Jazeera English network.
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In a trial that has been widely criticised as deeply politicised and defying the principles of natural justice, each new hearing day brings with it more delays.
Greste, a foreign correspondent for al-Jazeera, Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief and Baher Mohamed, a producer, were arrested on December 29 and later charged along with 17 others with colluding with the now banned Muslim Brotherhood to falsify news and defame Egypt. All deny the charges.
Already frustrated by the prosecution’s failure to produce any credible evidence, the resignation of Farag Fathy Farag was yet another distraction in the tediously slow trial, and Greste and his co-defendants appeared rattled.
Accusing al-Jazeera of prioritising its criticism of Egypt over the freedom of its journalists, Farag launched a scathing attack from the lawyer’s podium in the crowded courtroom in the Tora Prison complex.
"My duty is to free these people and Jazeera keeps jeopardising the process," Farag told the judge as he announced his resignation from the case.
Claiming that the news network was using the case for promotional purposes, he said Jazeera’s decision to take legal action against Egypt and seek $US150 million ($160.22 million) in compensation over Egypt’s move to block Jazeera satellites in Egypt, force its Cairo bureau to close and harass and jail its journalists, could damage the journalists’ case.
“They are using the case to defame Egypt, they do not care the defendants are in jail,” Farag said, before storming out of the court room.
Trying to make sense of his lawyer’s resignation during a break in proceedings, Greste said he was “disappointed at what was said in court today … I am angry … I am baffled by it, this is the first we have heard that there is a problem.”
Farag’s resignation again highlighted the lack of access the journalists have had to their legal team – something they have raised repeatedly with Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata.
“We should be able to sit down and plan our case with our lawyers,” Mohamed Fahmy said.
It was also revealed that the prosecutor demanded defence lawyers pay 1.2 million Egyptian pounds ($180,542) to get access to the video evidence in the case, which works out to a fee of around 67 pounds per second of video ($10.08 per second), Khaled Abu Bakr, lawyer for Fahmy told the court.
“The idea that our lawyers need to pay 1.2 million to get access to the videos is preposterous,” Fahmy said during the court recess.
It is understood the standard fee to access evidence is 500 Egyptian pounds ($75).
One of Greste’s other lawyers, Yousry Samy al-Sayeed, said it was unjust and against Egypt’s constitution to force defendants to pay to view evidence against them.
“It is frustrating, because I know there is no evidence against my client in those videos,” al-Sayeed said.
Fahmy also told the judge he had a document from telecommunications mogul Naguib Sawiris, one of Egypt's richest men, and scientist Farouq al-Baz, that attests to his good character and the fact that he is a “liberal and secular” Muslim, not a member of the Brotherhood.
Outside the court, an al-Jazeera English spokeswoman would not comment on Farag’s outburst.
As the families of the journalists gathered outside Tora Prison after the judge adjourned the case for another seven days, the strain was obvious.
Peter’s brother, Andrew Greste, said although Peter had a day’s warning about his lawyer’s resignation “he definitely looked a little bit rattled after the drama in the courtroom today.”
“But all the indications we have had so far is that Peter is on very solid ground legally, so that fact that one part of the team is no longer associated with the case should not affect its outcome,” Andrew said.
He expressed frustration at the continual delays in proceeding and the revelations that there was now an argument over having to pay to view the key prosecution evidence against the journalists.
“It seems mind blowing that they have to pay such a large sum to view the evidence and as we heard in court today, the lawyers are saying it is unheard of, it is the highest sum they have dealt with,” Andrew Greste said.
The trial was adjourned until May 22 and the journalists were again denied bail.