Three Al Jazeera journalists were each handed three-year prison sentences by a Cairo court yesterday for broadcasting material harmful to Egypt and operating without a media license.
The retrial verdict attracted international condemnation and was denounced by the Doha-based broadcast organization as being heavily politicized and “another deliberate attack on press freedom”.
Journalists Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy were in court to hear the verdict, while colleague Peter Greste was sentenced in absentia. Greste was released by Egyptian authorities in February this year and was deported to his home country of Australia.
Fahmy had renounced his Egyptian nationality, in the hope that he too would be deported.
Fahmy and Mohamed had been on bail ahead of the verdict after spending 410 days in detention. Several co-defendants who had been accused of working with Al Jazeera received similar sentences.
The two journalists went back to Tora Prison in southern Cairo last night, Al Jazeera said, quoting Egyptian media reports.
In a poignant tweet before returning to custody, Mohamed said:
Keep shouting for us my colleagues I'm sorry.
from now on will not be able to keep in touch with you #FreeAJStaff
— Baher Mohamed (@Bahrooz) August 29, 2015
Greste also tweeted his reaction to the sentences:
— Peter Greste (@PeterGreste) August 29, 2015
Speaking on Al Jazeera in reaction to Saturday’s verdict, Greste said he was shocked at the scale of the sentence. “Words really don’t do justice. To be given three-year sentences is outrageous. It is just devastating for me.”
Judge Hassan Farid said he sentenced the men to prison at least partly because they had not registered with the country’s journalist “syndicate”, claiming they “were not journalists”.
He also said the men brought in equipment without security officials’ approval, had broadcast “false news” on Al Jazeera and used a hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.
Mohamed was sentenced to an additional six months for possession of a spent bullet casing.
The Cairo court said that previous time spent in prison would account for time served.
Al Jazeera’s head of litigation Farah Muftah said the verdict would be appealed with Egypt’s highest court, the Court of Cassation. It has 60 days to do so once the judge publishes the basis for the sentences handed down.
Speaking earlier today, Greste called for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi to pardon those convicted.
“President Sisi now has an opportunity to undo that injustice, to correct that injustice. The eyes of the world are on Egypt. It is now up to President Sisi to do what he said he would do from the outset and that is pardon us if we were ever convicted,” AFP reports.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney – who is representing Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief, Canadian national Fahmy – also said she would press for a pardon:
“The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt. It sends a message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news. And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda,” AP reported her as saying.
Al Jazeera Media Network’s Acting Director General Dr Mostefa Souag said in a statement that the “verdict defies logic and common sense.”
“The whole case has been heavily politicized and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner. There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organisations and at no point during the long drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny.
“Today’s verdict is yet another deliberate attack on press freedom. It is a dark day for the Egyptian judiciary; rather than defend liberties and a free and fair media, they have compromised their independence for political reasons,” he added.
Giles Trendle, Acting Managing Director of Al Jazeera English, denounced the judge’s decision, saying there had been no evidence that they had “in any way” fabricated news, according to the court’s own technical committee.
He also said that the team did not need a broadcasting licence, as they were not broadcasting in Egypt to Egyptians.
And he attacked the judge’s suggestion that the three were not journalists, saying:
“They emphatically are journalists. The court cannot wish away the fact that these three men don’t have a longstanding track record and a distinguised body of work. They were journalists and they are journalists.”
The journalists were arrested in December 2013 in their Cairo hotel room amid heightened tensions between Egypt and Qatar, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of President Mohamed Mursi that was ousted by the military in mid-2013.
In June this year, an Egyptian court found the trio guilty of spreading false news and assisting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and were given harsh sentences. Egyptian national Mohamed was jailed for 10 years, while Greste and Canadian-Egyptian Fahmy each received prison terms of seven years.
Around the world, political leaders spoke out against the ruling. The Canadian Minister of State for Consular Affairs, Lynne Yelich, called for the immediate release of Fahmy, while Britain’s Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood said: “These sentences will undermine confidence in Egypt’s progress towards strong long-term stability based on implementing the rights granted by the Egyptian constitution.”
He also urged Egyptian authorities to “take urgent action to resolve the position of the two British nationals in this case,” AP reports. Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane are among several Al-Jazeera journalists convicted in absentia by Egyptian courts.
Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said in a statement that she would continue to pursue all diplomatic avenue with her Egyptian counterpart to clear Greste’s name.
The US State Department said in a statement it was “deeply disappointed” by the verdict, which “undermines the very freedom of expression necessary for stability and development,” Reuters reported.
International human rights organization Amnesty International described the verdict as “an affront to justice that sound the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt.”
“This is a farcical verdict which strikes at the heart of freedom of expression in Egypt. The charges against Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were always baseless and politicized, and they should never have been arrested and tried in the first place,” Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, under the hashtags #FreeAJStaff and #Journalismisnotacrime, thousands took to social media to voice their opposition to the verdicts.
— Shiona McCallum (@shionamc) August 29, 2015