AN Egyptian court yesterday sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists to three years in prison, the latest twist in a long-running trial criticised worldwide by press freedom advocates and human rights activists.
The case against Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed embroiled their journalism in the wider conflict between Egypt and Qatar following the 2013 military ousting of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
It was not immediately clear how the sentence would affect the three men. Greste, who was deported in February, spoke to Al-Jazeera from Sydney and said he believed an Egyptian appeals court would overturn the verdict. Fahmy and Mohammed, both on hand for yesterday’s hearing, were immediately taken away by police after the hearing.
Mostefa Souag, Al-Jazeera English’s acting director- general, also criticised the verdict, saying it “defies logic and common sense”.
“The whole case has been heavily politicised and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner,” Souag said.
“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.”
Judge Hassan Farid, in his ruling, said he sentenced the men to prison because they had not registered with the country’s journalist syndicate. He also said the men brought in equipment without security officials’ approval, had broadcast “false news” on Al-Jazeera and had broadcast from a hotel without permission.
Immediately after the ruling, Fahmy’s wife began crying. Others sobbed.
“The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt,” said human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who represented Fahmy. “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.”
The case began in December 2013, when Egyptian security forces raided the upscale hotel suite used by Al-Jazeera at the time to report from Egypt.
Authorities arrested Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed, later charging them with allegedly being part of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian authorities have declared a terrorist organisation, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.
Since the ousting of Morsi, Egypt has cracked down heavily on his supporters, and the journalists were accused of being mouthpieces for the Brotherhood.
Al-Jazeera and the journalists have denied the allegations, saying they were simply reporting the news. However, Doha, where Al-Jazeera is based, has been a strong supporter of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in the greater Middle East. At the trial, prosecutors used news clips about an animal hospital with donkeys and horses, and another about Christian life in Egypt, as evidence the men broke the law. Defence lawyers – and even the judge – dismissed the videos as irrelevant.
Nonetheless, the men were convicted on 23 June, 2014, with Greste and Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohammed to ten years for being found with a spent bullet casing. Yesterday, Mohammed received an additional six months for being in possession of a “bullet,” according to the full text of the court decision carried by Egypt’s state news agency. It was not clear why yesterday’s verdict referred to a “bullet” rather than a spent bullet casing.
The verdict brought a landslide of international condemnation and calls for newly elected president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who as military chief led the overthrow of Morsi, to intervene.
Egypt’s Court of Cassation, the country’s highest appeals court, later ordered their retrial, saying the initial proceedings were marred by violations of the defendants’ rights.