CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to seven years in prison each on terrorism-related charges in a verdict Monday that stunned their families and raised international outrage, with a chorus of voices denouncing the ruling as a blow to freedom of expression.
The verdicts against Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed came after a 5-month trial that Amnesty International described as a “sham.” The group called Monday’s rulings “a dark day for media freedom in Egypt.”
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. The trial has been widely seen as 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.
In an unprecedented trial of journalists on terrorism charges, prosecutors charged them with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist group, and with fabricating footage to damage Egypt’s security. But observers of the trial said the prosecution presented no evidence to support the charges. Three other foreign journalists – two Britons who worked for Al-Jazeera and a Dutch freelance reporter who had no connection to Al-Jazeera but once met Fahmy for tea in his makeshift office at a luxury hotel in Cairo – were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the verdict as “chilling” and it flies in the face of the essential ingredients of a civil society and free press. He said that he is voicing his concern to Egypt’s foreign minister.
A day earlier, Kerry met with Egypt’s newly elected President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army chief who ousted Morsi. Kerry said he discussed the Al-Jazeera case with him and expressed optimism, saying el-Sissi gave “a very strong sense of his commitment” to review the judicial process as well as laws that have been sharply criticized by rights groups.
International pressure mounted on el-Sissi to intervene and pardon the three. He has the power to do so, but only after appeals are finished, a process that could take months.
The convictions and sentences stunned the defendants and their families and supporters in the Cairo courtroom.
“They will pay for this, I promise,” Fahmy, who was Al-Jazeera English’s acting Cairo bureau chief, shouted angrily. Guards pulled him from the defendants’ cage, dragging him by the arms – despite a shoulder injury that worsened into a permanent disability during his months in detention.
Greste, an award-winning correspondent, silently raised a clinched fist in the air.
Fahmy’s mother and fiancee broke down in tears. “Did anybody see any evidence against him?” his mother, Wafaa Bassiouni cried out. “Who did he kill?”
“This is a screwed up system. This whole government is incompetent,” his brother Adel said. He said the family would appeal the verdict but added, “There is no hope in the judicial system.”
Greste’s brother Andrew said he was “gutted” and also vowed to appeal. “From my point of view, we have seen no incriminating evidence in court,” he said. “It is extremely difficult to understand.”
The three received sentences of seven years each in a maximum security prison. Mohammed, the team’s producer, received an extra three years because of additional charges of possession of ammunition – a reference to a spent shell he had picked up from protests as a souvenir.
There were 17 co-defendants in the case – seven journalists and the rest students arrested separately and accused of giving footage to the journalists. Four were sentenced to seven years each, two were acquitted, and the rest – tried in absentia – received 10-year sentences.
“We are shocked, utterly shocked by this verdict,” Australian Foreign Minister Julia Bishop told journalists in Canberra. “This verdict is hardly sending the message to the international community that Egypt is fulfilling (the) transition to democracy.”
She said Australia would contact el-Sissi and ask him to intervene. Before the verdicts, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday he spoke with el-Sissi, told him that Greste was innocent and urged him to help.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said he was “appalled” by the verdict. The Foreign Office summoned Egypt’s ambassador in London to express its concerns.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said its ambassadors abroad would explain the verdicts and stress to international officials Egypt’s “full rejection” of interference in its internal affairs or the independence of its judiciary.
If they appeal, the three journalists would remain in prison 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 been seen as political, linked to the July 3 ouster of Morsi 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 treated it as a bitter opponent. During the trial, Fahmy shouted in court that their prosecution was an extension of the fight between Egypt’s government and Qatar.
In August, a journalist for Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel, Abdullah Elshamy, was arrested while covering protests. He was held without charge and went on hunger strike for more than four months until he was released last week.
The managing director of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English, Al Anstey, said Egyptian authorities should be “held to account by the global community,”
“To have detained them for 177 days is an outrage. To have sentenced them defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice,” he said.
Egypt’s courts have already come under heavy international criticism over trials connected to the anti-Islamist crackdown. Courts have sentenced to death hundreds after cursory mass trials on charges of involvement in deadly violence, usually with little evidence and little chance for the defense to present its case.
Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed 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 defense also complained repeatedly that it did not have access to the prosecution evidence.
Amnesty International’s observer at the trial, Philip Luther, said the prosecution “failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence” backing the charges. In a statement by the group, he called the sentences “a travesty of justice.”
He said the Egyptian courts have proved “unwilling or incapable of conducting an impartial and fair trial when it comes to those perceived to support the former president.”
Shaimaa Aboul-kheir, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the verdict shows “that Egypt is one of the dangerous and more risky countries for international journalists to work and it’s also a very risky country for local journalists.” The group said at least 14 journalists are behind bars in Egypt.