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CAIRO – Egypt's Foreign Ministry on Thursday rejected U.S. criticism of its top prosecutor's decision to refer 20 Al-Jazeera journalists to trial on terrorism-related charges, insisting the country's judiciary is independent.
The group is to be put on trial on charges of aiding or joining a terrorist group and endangering national security. The charges expand a heavy-handed crackdown that authorities have waged against the Muslim Brotherhood since the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
Authorities have long depicted the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network as biased toward Morsi and his Brotherhood and have sought to bar it from operating. But the charges now effectively depict the station's reporting as support for terrorism after the government declared the Brotherhood a terror organization in December. The network denies any bias.
The 20 defendants are known to include three men working for Al-Jazeera English: Acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, award-winning correspondent Peter Greste of Australia and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian. The three were arrested on Dec. 29 in a raid on the hotel suites in which they were working.
No date has been set for the trial and the full list of charges and names of defendants have not been released.
After Wednesday's indictment of the 20, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was "deeply concerned" about the lack of freedoms in Egypt and the country's "egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms."
Abdelattie, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Egypt's judicial system ensures fair trials and that the government does not interfere in its work.
Greste's parents, Lois and Juris, called the arrests of their son, his colleagues Fahmy and Mohamed an abuse of human rights, free speech and journalists' freedom to report.
"Someone didn't like their report. For that, they are now put into a maximum security prison for what is clearly punishment -- not mere detention," Juris Greste told reporters in the Australian east coast city of Brisbane. "This is most undeserved, outrageous and shameful. It's unbecoming of a great nation like Egypt. It is unbecoming of any civil society to behave like this."