CAIRO  - The trial of Al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting deposed Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday heard defendants charge they were tortured and denied medical care.

The high-profile trial is seen as a test of the military-installed government’s tolerance of independent media, with activists fearing a return to autocracy three years after the Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. The trial of the Qatar-based channel’s journalists also comes against the backdrop of strained ties with Doha, which was a strong supporter of Morsi and his now-banned Brotherhood.

The 20 defendants include well-known Australian reporter Peter Greste. Eight of them are in custody, and the rest on the run or abroad. They are accused of supporting the Brotherhood and broadcasting false reports, after police shut down the Cairo offices of Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the network’s Egyptian channel, following the military’s July 3 overthrow of Morsi. Prosecutors say the defendants worked with the Egyptian channel without proper press accreditations. The defendants say they work with Al-Jazeera English.

At Wednesday’s hearing, six defendants, including Greste and Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, appeared in a caged dock wearing white prison uniform. Fahmy, who was arrested along with Greste in December, told the court his right shoulder “has been broken for 10 weeks and I sleep on the floor.” “I ask you to free me on the guarantee from the Canadian embassy that I will not leave the country,” he said. Relatives said Fahmy broke his shoulder before he was arrested.

During the hearing, a security official who is part of the investigation team told a defence lawyer that Fahmy “works for Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, and I am not a media man to differentiate between the two channels, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr and Al-Jazeera English. “As long as he collaborates with a channel that broadcasts false news and cooperates with the Brotherhood, then he is a member of the Brotherhood.”

Fahmy insisted that he and other defendants worked for Al-Jazeera English, telling reporters that he had even told the network that “none of his content should appear on Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr”. He said that all staff members had valid cards from the Egyptian press centre. Greste too denied that the defendants worked with the Egyptian channel. “The evidence of the first witness (security officer) seems to have fallen apart, and if the rest of the case is based on his evidence the whole case will fall apart,” he said.

“Nothing that incriminates us is in our equipment,” he said, referring to broadcasting equipment presented by the prosecution as evidences. Fahmy’s lawyer Ibrahim Adel Wahab said the only logical charge against his client was of “possessing unlicensed broadcasting equipment”.

Another defendant, Soheib Saad, said he was “tortured by state security.” Without elaborating, he said he faced “physical and psychological torture” and had “asked to be checked (by a doctor) but nobody answered.” Before the hearing began, defendant Baher Mohamed shouted: “Journalists are not terrorists,” as a bench full of security personnel separated those on trial from lawyers and reporters. Greste’s brother Andrew told AFP earlier Wednesday that his brother was in “good physical condition” and not “physically abused.” The trial was later adjourned to March 24. Greste, winner of the prestigious Peabody award for a documentary on Somalia, is the only foreign defendant in custody.

Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, and Dutch journalist Rena Netjes - who was indicted even though she does not work for the channel - are abroad and being tried in absentia. Prosecutors say the defendants falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war”, a possible reference to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of a government crackdown in which more than 1,400 people, mostly Morsi supporters, have been killed in street clashes.

The government has designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation”. Al-Jazeera says only nine of the defendants are on its staff and has denied the charges. The prosecution says all 20 defendants work for the channel. On Tuesday, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it “deplores the government’s continuing violations of the fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed and protected in the new constitution”.