Three Al Jazeera journalists were among eight who appeared at a hearing in a Cairo prison court Thursday, accused along with 17 other defendants of spreading "false news" and having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt declared a terrorist organization in December.
"Tell her I love her. Big wedding when I get out," Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy told journalists in a message to his fiancee, appearing in high spirits on the first day of his trial, despite a worsening shoulder injury.
Fahmy, a former CNN freelance producer, is accused of being a member of a terrorist group and airing false news about Egypt to give the impression of a civil war. A prosecutor has also charged Al Jazeera English correspondent Peter Greste, producer Baher Mohammed and 17 others. Al Jazeera said nine on the list were on its staff.
The charges were read out Thursday as the case opened, but no evidence was read in open court. The prosecution had been expected to outline the evidence supporting the charges.
The case against the journalists comes amid a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after the ouster of the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsy. The accused have denied the allegations against them, with the journalists saying they were simply doing their jobs.
On the stand at the police academy in the Tora Prison complex, Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed appeared with five others. "We didn't even know their names until we met them here," Fahmy told reporters asking about their relationship with the other defendants.
They include Anas El Beltagy, son of jailed Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed El Beltagy. His mother, Sanaa Abdel Gawad -- standing outside the court wearing a badge with a picture of his sister, who was killed in August -- said their arrest was "a vendetta against his father."
Sohaib Saad, a student defendant claiming no relation to Al Jazeera, told reporters he was receiving "repressive treatment" at the Aqrab (Scorpion) Maximum Security Prison, including a ban on food and visits.
Fahmy and Mohammed were originally in solitary confinement in that prison. In their new prison, the Tora Farm Annex, they share a cell with Greste, allowed one hour of outdoor time a day and no books.
They complained that conditions inside are "psychologically unbearable," but they remained defiant. "If justice happens, we will be free soon," Greste said. Speaking in a metal cage and separated from journalists by rows of wooden benches and a line of police conscripts, his voice was barely audible.
"We need everyone's support," he said.
Fahmy had to repeat his words in a louder voice. "Tell my parents I love them," he said.
Mohammed told journalists to tell his wife to stay away because she's pregnant. Along with other relatives of the defendants and other reporters, she stood outside the prison complex early Thursday morning with their two children. She and Fahmy's family couldn't get inside.
'It's just ridiculous'
In an interview, Andrew Greste told CNN how he had visited his brother Peter in Egypt's notorious Tora prison.
"There was the ability to communicate," he said. "I guess that's the only way we feel we can get through this: is trying not to get too bogged down in the emotions and the conditions that Peter is enduring, because that becomes paralyzing for us."
The family was shocked by what has happened, Andrew Greste said. "I mean, a journalist of Peter's credibility, it's just ridiculous," he said.
He said he had taken food and clothing into prison for his brother, since it was not provided by the state.
Peter Greste, an award-winning journalist, was in Egypt only to cover for a colleague, his brother added.
The Egyptian government has faced a tide of criticism about the case, from professional journalism organizations and human rights groups.
Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, last month described the prosecution as a "major setback for media freedom in Egypt."
He added, "The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today -- that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities."
The case relies on simmering sentiment against Al Jazeera TV, deemed biased to the Muslim Brotherhood. One lawyer told the court that there is a mix-up in investigations and other case documents between the Jazeera Mubasher Masr, banned by Egypt, and Al Jazeera English.
"Which Jazeera?" the judge asked before taking notes.