Three Al Jazeera journalists were found guilty of spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in a Cairo court this morning.
Australian journalist Peter Greste of Al Jazeera English, and his colleagues – local producer Baher Mohamed and Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy – were jailed for seven years each by Judge Mohamed Nagy.
Baher Mohamed was also sentenced to an additional three years in jail for possessing ammunition – apparently a bullet.
A further 10 defendants who were being tried in absentia were each given sentences of 10 years in jail.
On hearing the verdict, Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed stood in silence, with arms round each others’ shoulders in solidarity, according to BBC correspondent Christian Fraser.
He added on Twitter that Greste hit the caged dock after the verdicts were read out.
The three men have been in Tora prison since they were arrested in their Cairo hotel room on Dec. 29.
They were charged with defaming Egypt and endangering national security, doctoring footage and for affiliating with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has now been branded a terrorist group.
Throughout their 177 days in prison, the trio vehemently denied all allegations against them.
This was their 13th hearing in the Cairo courtroom. Throughout their trial, which has been ongoing since Feb. 20 and has been beset by delays, the three have spent most of their time locked in a metal cage.
They entered the packed courtroom at around 10am today and gave “brave smiles and waves” from their caged dock before the verdict.
Journalists reported some defendants shouting “hurriyah” (freedom) as they waited for the judge.
Judge Mohamed Nagy entered the courtroom 90 minutes later, just after 11.30am Doha time, and delivered the verdicts.
The three key AJE journalists were tried, along with five students and the leader of a Muslim charity, in an attempt to show that they played a part in a Muslim Brotherhood-connected plot to tarnish Egypt’s reputation. A further 11 defendants were tried in absentia, including six more Al Jazeera staff.
The prosecution’s case against the journalists centered on videos which had been seized in a bid to demonstrate a plot. They included film about horse welfare for Sky News Arabia, a BBC documentary about Somalia and uncut footage of a press conference in Kenya.
There was enormous international support for the journalists throughout their trial, as the proceedings were seen by many as a symbol of tightening media restrictions in Egypt. Ambassadors from UK, Latvia, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands were in court for the verdict this morning, along with representatives from the world’s media.
Political leaders including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott reportedly spoke about the case with Egypt’s new President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the eve of the verdict.
On Saturday, the New York Times featured a completely empty back page, with the strapline at the bottom: “This is what happens when you silence journalists. Show your support. Journalism is not a crime. #FreeAJStaff”.
— Femi Oke (@FemiOke) June 22, 2014
Journalists and human rights campaigners around the world organized demonstrations and press conferences to raise awareness of the men’s case, and many public figures posted photographs of themselves on Twitter with their mouths’ taped and carrying a card with the hashtag #FreeAJStaff.
Amnesty International denounced the men’s detention, describing it as a “vindictive persecution of journalists for merely doing their jobs.”
One of Greste’s brothers, Mike, has been in Egypt for many of the hearings and his other brother Andrew flew in to be in court for the verdict.
After visiting Peter Greste in prison last night, Mike Greste told Australian broadcaster ABC News his brother was ” obviously very nervous and anxious, but at the same time (he’s) very composed and level headed about it all.”
Hopes for the men’s freedom had been raised when their Al Jazeera Arabic colleague Abdullah Elshamy was freed from Cairo’s Scorpion prison on Tuesday of last week, 307 days after being arrested without charge.
He had spent nearly six months on hunger strike.
On his release, he had called for the freedom of his AJE colleagues, and was outside the court for the verdict.
— Claire Read (@clear_red) June 23, 2014
More recently, many observers had hoped that Kerry’s announcement on Sunday of US$575mn of US military aid for Egypt meant that government officials had pledged to free the journalists.
Throughout the trial, the Qatar-based TV channel maintained the innocence of their journalists.
In advance of the verdict, Al Jazeera English’s Managing Director Al Anstey said the journalists were being held “simply for doing their job and carrying out the highest quality journalism.”