Security sources released the names of the 20 journalists accused of belonging to the so-called "Marriott cell" on early Thursday evening.
The defendants are all Al Jazeera journalists who are accused of committing acts related to terrorism and media violations, including falsifying the news. The list includes four non-Egyptians, including Australian citizen Peter Greste, British nationals Dominic Laurence and Susane Melanie and Dutch citizen Johanna Ideniette. Eleven others on the list were identified as fugitives.
The Egyptian defendants include Al Jazeera English Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed, among others. Anas al-Beltagy, son of Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy, is also on the list.
Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the State Security Prosecution’s decision on Wednesday to try the defendants before the Criminal Court. Other international human rights organizations and media watchdogs also slammed the developments.
Amnesty said the case represented a "grave risk to media freedom,” and demanded that the authorities immediately drop all charges.
“The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today — that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities,” said Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International.
Amnesty referred to Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed — three detained journalists working with Al Jazeera’s English bureau in Cairo — as "prisoners of conscience” who were "imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.”
The prosecution referred to the defendants as the “Marriott cell” because they rented rooms at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek with the alleged aim of collecting and manipulating media footage to spread false information and rumors in the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was recently designated a banned terrorist organization by the Cabinet.
“Journalists cannot operate freely in a climate of fear. The latest development is a brazen attempt to stifle independent reporting in Egypt. In the lead up to elections, a free press is essential,” argued Salil Shetty.
In addition, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also condemned the decision to try the journalists on criminal charges.
"This attempt to criminalize legitimate journalistic work is what distorts Egypt's image abroad. The government's lack of tolerance shows that it is unable to handle criticism," said Sherif Mansour, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Coordinator.
"We call on authorities to drop these outrageous charges and release all journalists from jail immediately."
In a census the CPJ conducted in December 2013, Egypt ranked among the world’s worst offenders for jailing journalists in a list topped by Iran, Turkey and China. Egyptian authorities detained five journalists in 2013, as compared to none in 2012, according to the study.
“Following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 2013, the military-supported government detained dozens of local and international journalists, particularly those viewed as critical of the government or sympathetic to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Most were freed,” the report said.