Cairo, 23 June-2014, Outlook: An Egyptian court today convicted three journalists from Al Jazeera English and sentenced them to seven years in prison each on terrorism-related charges in a case that had resulted in an outcry from rights groups.
The sentences were handed down against Australian correspondent Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed, who also received an extra three years in prison on separate charges.
“I swear they will pay for this,” Fahmy shouted angrily from the defendants’ cage after the sentences were announced. Greste raised his fists in the air.
“They just ruined a family,” said Fahmy’s brother Adel, who was attending the session. He said they would appeal the verdict but added that he had little faith in the system.
“Everything is corrupt,” he said.
The judge also handed 10-year sentences to two British journalists and a Dutch journalist who were not in Egypt and being tried in absentia. Two defendants among 14 others on trial in the case were acquitted, including the son of Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed were arrested in December in a raid on the Cairo hotel room they were using as an office, as part of a sweeping crackdown on Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
They were accused of supporting Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities have declared a terrorist organisation. They also face charges of fabricating footage to undermine Egypt’s national security and make it appear the country was facing civil war. The prosecution has offered little evidence to back up the charges against them.
The three and their supporters have said they were simply doing their jobs as journalists, covering the wave of protests led by the Brotherhood against the military-backed government installed after Morsi’s ousted on July 3 by then-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is now the president.
British ambassador James Watt, also attending, said he was “very disappointed” by the verdict. “Freedom of expression is fundamental to any democracy,” he said.
The other defendants were mainly students, arrested separately, accused of providing the Al Jazeera journalists with footage. They were also charged with, among others, belonging to the Brotherhood.
The trial had provoked an international outcry and raised fears of growing media restrictions in Egypt.
“The Australian government is shocked at the verdict,” Canberra’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said.
“We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it.
“It is hard to credit that the court in this case could have reached this conclusion,” she added.
“The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case.”
Al-Jazeera chief Mustafa Sawaq said in Doha: “We condemn… This kind of unjust verdict. … We are shocked.”
Greste’s brother Andrew said he was devastated.
“We are devastated. It is definitely not what we were expecting. I was hoping for acquittal… We will continue to fight for his freedom,” he said.
In the Hague, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said he had summoned the Egyptian ambassador, “and will raise this matter with my European Union colleagues in Luxembourg.”
The verdict comes a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry called for freedom of the press to be upheld as he made a surprise visit to Cairo.