CAIRO, Egypt — A Egyptian court handed down harsh sentences to Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammad today on charges related to their post-coup reporting last year.
The three, who already have spent 177 days in jail, will now have to spend a total of seven years in prison. Baher Mohamed had three more years tacked onto his sentence because he had in his possession a bullet fired at a protest.
Yet in this highly politicized trial the prosecution never presented any evidence to show that these journalists created “false news” or joined the banned Muslim Brotherhood as charged. Instead, prosecutors laid out a case based on broad conspiracy theories claiming that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite network is responsible for Middle East regional conflicts.
The Arabic service of the network—editorially separate from the English-language services, for which these journalist work—generally was favorable toward the government of elected President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi was overthrown in July 2013 when mass protests set the stage for a coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president. In the year since, protests have been crushed and thousands of people jailed.
The evident aim of the prosecution was not just to convict the reporters and a handful of students on trial with them, but to drive home the idea that al-Sisi’s government has a monopoly on truth. Prosecutors described the verdict and the sentencing as a “deterrent.”
Tension was high in the courtroom packed with journalists and diplomats as Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata entered. He was wearing aviator sunglasses, and he kept them on as he started to read the verdict. (Al-Sisi often is photographed wearing similar shades, and seems to have started a fashion.)
In an earlier trial, Shehata had sentenced to death 14 Muslim Brotherhood members, including spiritual guide Mohamed Badie. Nobody really expected leniency, but still there was hope because the charges against the journalists were so far-fetched.
Fahmy was confident and bolstered by the attendance as he entered the prisoner’s cage. “Where’s John Kerry?” he called out, alluding to the U.S. secretary of state’s friendly visit with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday. Kerry had expressed “concerns” about human rights abuses but his criticisms were undermined by an announcement that the Obama administration sent more than $570 million in military and security assistance to Egypt this month and plans to deliver ten Apache attack helicopters.
As the sentences were read out, any shred of optimism evaporated. Fahmy’s fiancée and mother burst into tears.
Four students who also received seven-year sentences responded to the conviction by launching into a protest song while Fahmy raised his fist in defiance. The accused were swiftly removed from the court before they could issue any statement.
“It’s unbelievable, seven years for nothing!” said Fahmy’s shocked mother, Wafa Bassiouni, as his brother, Adel, lead her out of the prison courtroom. “This whole thing is corrupt, the whole country is corrupt,” cried Adel.
Secretary Kerry, who should not have been surprised, issued a statement saying “today's conviction and chilling, draconian sentences by the Cairo Criminal Court of three Al Jazeera journalists and fifteen others in a trial that lacked many fundamental norms of due process, is a deeply disturbing set-back to Egypt's transition. Injustices like these simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward in the way that President al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Shoukry told me just yesterday that they aspire to see their country advance.”
In the four-month trial the prosecution based its claims on interview footage gathered by the journalists, B-roll of tourists, election stories from other networks, and a feature report on Kenya by Greste, a well known Australian journalist, when he worked for the BBC. Basic journalistic equipment was paraded before the court as if cameras and microphones were subversive weapons. The prosecution implied the journalists were responsible for the statements of those they interviewed. Defense attorneys were blocked from getting access to the evidence and their cross examinations of police officers were hampered by the judge’s interruptions.
The committee responsible for determining what was considered legitimate evidence was exposed as biased when it came to light that the committee head accompanied the police unit that arrested the three at their workplace in the Marriot hotel.
Outside the courtroom in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison comples, Grest’s brother, Andrew, told The Daily Beast that “all throughout the process the Egyptian authorities assured us that the trial was going to be fair and the justice system was independent, so [the verdict] was a surprise.” When the verdict came through, he said, “It took a moment to sink in but I felt gutted, absolutely gutted.” Greste said his brother would keep fighting.
Canada’s Ambassador to Egypt, David Drake blasted the flaws in the trial procedures and lauded the success of the defense in proving to the public the journalists’ innocence. Drake has been following the case on behalf of Fahmy, who is duel Canadian-Egyptian national. Drake said he was very disappointed, but he refrained from saying whether the trial would impact Canada’s bilateral relations with Egypt. He also declined to comment on the ramifications for free press.
Human rights groups say that Monday’s verdict is further proof that Egypt’s crackdown on dissent will spare no one. All journalists should feel threatened by the harsh prison terms handed to the Al Jazeera team says Mohamed Lotfy, head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who has been observing the trial for Amnesty International.
“This sentence just confirms again that the media is not free in Egypt,” said Lotfy. This is the latest example, he said, of the way the judiciary has been used to expand the repression of public criticism. “It just confirms again that foreign media could face the firm grip of a government that doesn’t want any voice dissenting,” said Lotfy.
The convicted journalists and students may appeal the sentences or seek a pardon from Al-Sisi. But the press is on notice that his government and his courts will allow only the news that fits their views.