An EGYPTIAN court has convicted three al-Jazeera journalists on terrorism-related charges and sentenced them each to seven years in prison, in a verdict that stunned their families and was denounced as a blow to freedom of expression.
The verdicts against Australian former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed came after a five-month trial that Amnesty International described as a “sham”, adding it was “a dark day for media freedom in Egypt”.
International pressure was last night mounting on Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to pardon the jailed trio.
They had been detained since December and said they were being prosecuted simply for doing their jobs as journalists, covering Islamist protests against the removal of Mohamed Morsi as president last year.
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. Media groups called the trial political, part of a fight between the government and the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network, which Egypt’s authorities accuse of bias toward the Brotherhood and Mr Morsi. The network denies any bias.
“I swear they will pay for this,” Fahmy, who was al-Jazeera English’s acting Cairo bureau chief, shouted from the defendants’ cage after the sentences were announced. He is also accused of belonging to the Brotherhood.
Greste, an award-winning correspondent, silently raised a clenched fist in the air.
Mohammed, the team’s producer, received an extra three years because of additional charges of possessing ammunition. Al-Jazeera said that related to a spent shell found in his possession – a souvenir he picked up during the protests.
Downing Street said Prime Minister David Cameron was “completely appalled” by the guilty verdicts. Australian foreign minister Julia Bishop said her government would contact Mr Sisi and ask him to intervene.
He 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 stay in prison during 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 removal of Mr Morsi by then army chief Mr Sisi 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 was a leading ally of Mr Morsi, and Egypt’s military-backed government has since 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.
There were 17 co-defendants in the case. Eleven being tried in absentia each received ten-year prison sentences. They included three other foreign journalists, two Britons and a Dutch citizen.
Two were acquitted, including the son of Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of the co-defendants were students, accused of giving footage to the journalists.
Al-Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said: “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.”
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 with no indication it was falsified. They also cited as evidence leaflets the men had picked up at the protests.
Bizarrely, they presented random video clips 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.
Philip Luther, a director at Amnesty International, said the prosecution had “failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence linking the journalists to a terrorism organisation or proving they had falsified news footage”. It was, he said, “a travesty of justice”.