CAIRO – An Egyptian court convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists, including an Egyptian-Canadian, and sentenced them to seven years in prison each on terrorism-related charges in a verdict Monday that stunned their families and was quickly denounced as a blow to freedom of expression. International pressure mounted on Egypt’s president to pardon the three.
“I swear they will pay for this,” Mohamed Fahmy, the Egyptian-Canadian who was Al-Jazeera English’s acting Cairo bureau chief, shouted angrily from the defendants’ cage after the sentences were announced in the Cairo court.
The verdicts were against Fahmy, who is also accused of belonging to the Brotherhood, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, who also received an extra three years in prison on separate charges. The verdicts came after a 5-month trial that Amnesty International described as a “sham,” calling Monday’s rulings “a dark day for media freedom in Egypt.”
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The three, who have been detained since December, contend they are being prosecuted simply for doing their jobs as journalists, covering Islamist protests against the ouster last year of President Mohammed Morsi. Three other foreign journalists, two Britons and a Dutch citizen, were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.
Media groups have called the trial political, part of a fight between the government and the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network , which authorities accuse of bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. The network denies any bias.
Prosecutors charged them with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist group, and with fabricating footage to undermine Egypt’s national security and make it appear the country was facing civil war. But the prosecution presented little evidence in the trial.
Greste, an award-winning correspondent, silently raised a clinched fist in the air.
“They just ruined a family,” said Fahmy’s brother Adel, who was attending the session. His mother and finance broke down in tears. “Who did he kill” to get this sentence? Fahmy’s mother, Wafa Bassiouni shouted.
Fahmy’s brother said they would appeal the verdict but added that he had little faith in the system. “Everything is corrupt,” he said.
Greste’s brother Andrew said he was “gutted” and also vowed to appeal.
Attending the session, Canadian Ambassador David Drake said there are many questions over the verdict.
“We are very disappointed,” he said. “We are digesting this… We have to put our faith in the judicial system. We don’t understand this particular verdict.”
In Canada, Lynne Yelich, Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular), released a statement later in the morning echoing the ambassador’s sentiments and calling on the Egyptian government to protect the rights of all individuals “including journalists.”
“Canada is very disappointed with the verdict in the case of Mohamed Fahmy and is concerned that the judicial process that led to his verdict is inconsistent with Egypt’s democratic aspirations,” said the statement. “A fair and transparent legal system is a critical pillar of a future stable and democratic Egypt.”
British Ambassador James Watt also said he was disappointed, adding, “Freedom of expression is fundamental to any democracy.”
The three received sentences of seven years each in a maximum security prison. Mohamed, the team’s producer, received an extra three years because of additional charges of possession of ammunition. Al-Jazeera has said that charge was rooted in a spent shell found in his possession — a souvenir he’d picked up from protests.
Australian Foreign Minister Julia Bishop said, “We are all shocked by this verdict.”
She said Egypt’s government should “reflect what message is being sent to the world … We are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle media freedoms.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday that he told Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi that the jailed Australian journalist is innocent of charges that he supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said he was “appalled.”
El-Sissi has the power to commute the sentence or pardon the three — but only after appeals are finished, a process that could take months. The three would remain in prison throughout the appeals, unless they win a separate “suspension of verdict” ruling. An appeal can grant them a retrial, but only if flaws in the court proceedings are found.
The trial has had a strong political dimension from the start, tied into the July 3 ouster of Morsi by then-army chief el-Sissi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Security forces have killed hundreds and arrested thousands more, trying to crush protests by Morsi supporters.
Qatar, which owns Al-Jazeera, was a top ally of Morsi, and the military-backed government has since treated it as a bitter opponent. Amid the crackdown, Egyptian authorities accused Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for the group, an accusation the station denies. During the trial, Fahmy shouted in court that their prosecution was an extension of the fight between Egypt’s government and Qatar.
There were 14 other co-defendants in the case. Eight being tried in absentia each received 10-year prison sentences. Two of them were acquitted, including the son of Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of the co-defendants were students, arrested separately and accused of giving footage to the journalists.
The managing director of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English, Al Anstey, said in a statement that “not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them.”
“To have detained them for 177 days is an outrage. To have sentenced them defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice,” he said.
Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were arrested in December when police raided the Cairo hotel room they were using as an office. Police confiscated their equipment, computers and other items.
During the trial, prosecutors contended they would present fabricated footage aired by the defendants as evidence they aimed to undermine Egypt’s security.
Instead, they presented some footage showing clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and police, but without any indication it was falsified. They also cited as evidence leaflets that the three had picked up at the protests. Mostly, they presented random video clips also found on the three that had nothing to do with the case — including a report on a veterinary hospital in Cairo, another on Christian life in Egypt and old footage of Greste from previous assignments elsewhere in Africa, including video of animals.
The defence also complained repeatedly that it did not have access to the prosecution evidence.
“The only reason these three men are in jail is because the Egyptian authorities don’t like what they have to say,” Amnesty International said in a statement. The group’s observer at the trial, Philip Luther, said the prosecution “failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence linking the journalists to a terrorism organization or proving they had falsified news footage.”
“Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice,” said Luther. “The Egyptian judiciary has proved time and time again that it is either unwilling or incapable of conducting an impartial and fair trial when it comes to those perceived to support the former president.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says that the sentencing of the three Al-Jazeera journalists in Cairo to 7-to 10-year prison terms is chilling. He says he is voicing his concern to Egypt’s foreign minister.
Kerry says the verdict flies in the face of the essential ingredients of a civil society and free press. He urged Egypt to move quickly to address international concerns.
Yelich, the Canadian minister said in her statement:
“Senior Canadian officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and myself, have raised and will continue to raise Mr. Fahmy’s case with senior Egyptian authorities. We will continue to provide consular assistance to Mr. Fahmy, including engaging local Egyptian authorities to ensure his medical needs are being met.”
Baird has previously said he has discussed Fahmy’s case with his Egyptian counterpart, but Canadian officials have warned Fahmy’s family that the journalist’s dual citizenship has placed limits on how much they can do.
–With files from The Canadian Press