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Supporters demand release of Canadian journalist in Egypt

TORONTO – Members of the Canadian media and the public joined an international day of action Thursday to demand the release of several Al-Jazeera journalists, including an Egyptian-Canadian, who are imprisoned in Cairo.

Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and his colleagues – Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohamed – were detained on Dec. 29., and are being tried on charges of belonging to and aiding a terrorist organization.

Their arrests were characterized as part of a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that Egypt’s military-backed government has branded a terrorist organization.

Local authorities have said Al-Jazeera is biased towards the Brotherhood – an allegation the broadcaster has denied.

At a rally in Toronto, journalists and concerned citizens braved frigid temperatures to send a message that journalism is not a crime.

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“They are reporters, producers, journalists and they’ve been put in jail for doing their jobs. It’s unjust,” Tom Henheffer, executive director of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, said at a rally in Toronto.

“It’s crucial that we gather for one of our fellow Canadians and fight to get him out of prison.”

Journalists and free speech advocates, some with masking tape stuck across their mouths, gathered in centres in other countries as well, including London’s Trafalgar Square, Lebanon’s Martyrs’ Square and in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

On the Internet, photographs were posted of packed newsrooms bearing signs saying, “FreeAJStaff.”

The entire effort was aimed at pressuring the Egyptian government to drop the charges against Fahmy and his colleagues.

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“We want Egypt to know that these people that are in prison are being watched by the world and that the world expects that they will be let go as soon as possible,” said Daniel Lak, Al-Jazeera’s correspondent in Toronto.

WATCH: In Gaza City, Istanbul, and Sydney, protesters turned out to to demand the release of four Al Jazeera staffers in Egypt

A spokeswoman from Egypt’s embassy in London, however, said Thursday’s rallies would have no effect on her country’s prosecution of the journalists.

“There is a case in front of a court,” said Sohair Younis. “We will not cancel the trial because of the protest.”

The trial for Fahmy and his colleagues began last week, with all three pleading not guilty to the charges against them.

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The trio are being tried as part of a group of 20 individuals who authorities say worked for Al-Jazeera. At least 12 of those are being tried in abstentia.

Fahmy’s family has called the charges against the 40-year-old “ridiculous” and hopes an Egyptian court will eventually dismiss the case.

Raw video: Detained journalists held in Cairo

The Department of Foreign Affairs has said senior Canadian officials have raised Fahmy’s case with Egyptian authorities and have requested a fair and expeditious trial.

Fahmy’s family moved to Canada in 1991. He lived in Montreal and Vancouver for years before eventually moving abroad for work, which included covering stories for the New York Times and CNN.

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