Three Al Jazeera English journalists received verdicts of seven to 10 years in jail today on charges of “aiding a terrorist organization” by spreading false news, in a case that has raised questions and criticisms regarding media freedoms and judicial processes in Egypt.
The three deny the charges.
Award-winning Australian journalist Peter Greste, Al Jazeera English’s Kenya-based correspondent, who previously worked for the BBC, and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy, Al Jazeera English’s Cairo bureau chief, who previously worked for CNN, received seven years in a maximum security prison.
Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer for Al Jazeera, received seven years plus another three years on accusations of possessing a bullet.
A further 11 Al Jazeera employees, who were being tried in absentia, were sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Five students and an Islamic charity worker, who were included in the case, were also given their verdicts today.
Two students were acquitted, including the son of jailed Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy, though they will remain in jail pending charges in other cases. Three students received seven years in jail, while the Islamic charity worker received seven years.
Family members, international ambassadors and human rights monitors of the trial reacted to the verdicts with shock and disappointment due to its implications for media freedoms and the fairness of the judiciary in the country.
“The natural repercussion of this verdict for any independent media or journalist is that doing your job is dangerous,” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who has monitored the trial on behalf of Amnesty International.
“You could be put on trial and imprisoned for possessing footage of interviews you do, or for interviewing people the government doesn’t want to be interviewed,” Lotfy said. “Or even for covering events, like protests in the street, or if you show these videos in a light that the government doesn’t want.”
Egypt was named among the most deadly nations for journalists last year by the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as among the world’s worst jailers of journalists.
Fahmy’s fiancée, brother and mother broke down in tears once they heard the verdicts just after midday today.
“There is no hope in the judicial system. This is a screwed up system and this whole government is incompetent,” said Fahmy’s brother. On the verge of tears, he added: “Tell them, they’ve ruined a family.” He says he would like to appeal.
Wafaa Bassiouny, Fahmy’s mother, shouting and in tears as she walked away from the court, said: “Look at what they did to my son, they broke his shoulder in prison. Broken, and can never come back again as normal.”
Mohamed Fahmy looked absolutely shocked as he was dragged away from the prison cage. His fiancée Marwa and brother Adel said Fahmy was optimistic prior to the verdict, “because he did nothing wrong and has already paid a heavy price”.
Fahmy went for an MRI scan on Tuesday and was told by doctors that he has a permanent disability in his right shoulder that will require an operation. His condition has deteriorated due to poor medical attention whilst in prison.
The UK ambassador to Egypt, James Watt, told Mada Masr that he’s “deeply disappointed” by the verdict. “We’ve had concerns from the outset about the lack of due process, and we have conveyed those concerns repeatedly to the Egyptian authorities.”
He added: “Media freedoms in Egypt have to be respected if Egypt is to become the democracy to which the Egyptian people aspire. Today’s example has been a severe disappointment.”
Australia’s ambassador to Egypt Ralph King also said, on behalf of the Australian government, he was “deeply disappointed by the severity of the verdict.” Tony Abbott, Australia’s Prime Minister, lobbied Egypt’s recently elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the weekend for Greste’s release.
Greste’s brother Andrew said he was “gutted, devastated and surprised” by the sentence. “I find it difficult to understand given the evidence we have seen in court.”
Footage allegedly taken from the three journalists, and presented in court by prosecutors as evidence of their guilt, has included several videos with little or no connection to Egypt’s politics or Al Jazeera, according to the Guardian. These include a programme about horse welfare by Sky News Arabia, a BBC documentary about Somalia, raw footage of a Kenyan press conference and a song by Gotye, an Australian singer-songwriter, the British newspaper said.
The prosecution’s three key expert witnesses also denied they have the authority to judge whether the journalists have endangered national security — a denial that contradicts written claims made before the start of the trial, on which the prosecution’s case rests, according to the Guardian. Investigators also admitted they did not understand the difference between Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, a local Arabic network seen to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, and a Al Jazeera English, the Qatar-based global channel the three journalists work for.
Gamal Eid, lawyer and executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), said he was still hoping the judge would “defy expectations” and issue a verdict in accordance with the law, despite the fact that he said the “norm is the absence of law and justice.”
“But the verdict affirms that the judiciary is not independent and the rule of the law is absent,” Eid concluded. There is no evidence indicting the journalists, except their “opinions, which oppose those of the state,” he said, adding that they have not committed any act punishable by law.
Eid said the case depended on “the defendants’ political opinions, without tangible facts that prove they violated the law.”
He doesn’t recall such a harsh sentence being handed to journalists in the past 20 years, and added that the current attack on journalism is the worst of its kind in terms of confiscating publications, censorship and the siege on reporters — not only those who oppose the regime, but those who are neutral as well. “Journalism has become a crime in Egypt,” he said.
Ahmed Ezzat, lawyer with the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, agreed that this kind of verdict is unprecedented. He said there have always been red lines when it comes to imprisoning journalists, citing the pardoning of Ibrahim Eissa — who was jailed for two months for publishing false information about then president Hosni Mubarak’s health.
He said at the time that pressure was effective even if journalists have committed inevitable violations given their work in a context that is void of transparency.
The lawyer explained that the main charge is publishing false news to harm Egypt’s reputation, but there was no violent act committed to justify the harsh sentence. He added that the case is mainly built on information and that the verdict has been highly exaggerated.
Ezzat cites the absentia sentences as an example of the judge’s mis-evaluation of the case and the fact that it is politicized. He explained that since the case is based on information, the judge had to be familiar with the defendants. The Dutch Embassy withheld information from the prosecutor general about the Dutch defendant in the case, in accordance with laws protecting privacy in Holland. Therefore, Ezzat explained, the judge does not know anything about those sentenced in absentia for him to issue this ruling.
Ezzat also said National Security used a video editing program on Greste’s laptop as evidence against him.
The three journalists have spent the last six months in jail and four months on trial. Fahmy and Greste were arrested in late December, after a police raid on their temporary office suites in the five-star Marriott hotel in Cairo. The case is referred to in local media as the “Marriott cell.” Mohamed, the producer, was arrested from his home on the same day.
The defendants are among at least 16,000 people who have been arrested in the year since former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow last July.
President Sisi could in theory now issue a pardon, according to Lotfy. In the meantime, the families say they will continue to fight.
“We’ll continue to fight for Peter’s freedom. We believe he’s done nothing wrong,” said Andrew Greste, his brother. Andrew and another brother, Mike, plan to visit Peter in his jail cell tomorrow.