Seismic shock waves rattled the New York newsroom of Al Jazeera America Monday when an Egyptian judge sporting dark aviator shades rendered a decision worthy of Alice in Wonderland, in which the Queen of Hearts famously insisted, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards!”
The nasty surprise: Australian Peter Greste, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammad—three journalists working for Al Jazeera English, AJAM’s sister network—received sentences ranging from seven to ten years on trumped-up charges of collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We consider Peter, Baher and Mohamed our brothers,” Al Jazeera America President Kate O’Brian told The Daily Beast, “and our folks in our newsroom were terribly saddened this morning by the news. Many have worked with the three of them and they feel it on a personal level as well. It’s a bad day for journalism and it’s a bad day for freedom of the press.”
AJAM chief executive officer Ehab Al Shihabi struck a defiant note. “This crisis will make us much stronger,” he told The Daily Beast. “We are more determined to launch a campaign in the United States and around the world for those who believe in freedom of the press…and we are very much determined to make the case that this is a crime against the media as a whole, not just a crime against Al Jazeera.”
Shihabi vowed that he will not rest until the Egyptian authorities release his three journalists from jail.
They have already spent more than six months in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison, under wretched conditions, for the crime of doing their jobs. Mohammad was handed an extra three years for keeping a spent shell casing retrieved from a protest, on the bizarre theory that he possessed ammunition. But the prosecution’s case was so weakly presented, and so patently absurd, that supporters of the trio clung to the hope that even the Egyptian military dictatorship could not find them guilty.
Yet a visit Sunday by Secretary of State John Kerry to Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—during which Kerry (as he revealed during his press conference Monday) lectured the general about the value of “a free press” and “due process in a democracy”—couldn’t prevent the inevitable. Never mind that the United States gives Egypt billions of dollars in economic and military aid, and the Obama administration sent more than $570 million in security assistance this month alone and plans to provide 10 Apache attack helicopters to the oppressive Egyptian government.
Egypt has long been a strategic ally of the United States in the Middle East and beyond, even during the brief administration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamad Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president until a military coup forced him from office last year.
“It’s not our place to suggest to the United States what its relationship with Egypt should be,” said Amjad Atallah, regional director for the Americas for the Al Jazeera Media Network. “But I think there is tension between common interests and uncommon values. If you have common interests and the values conflict so directly and so obviously, how do you respond?”
Atallah, a former director of the Middle East task force at Washington’s New America Foundation think tank, said the current Egyptian regime is even more oppressive than Hosni Mubarak, who was tossed out of office—and thrown under the bus by President Obama—during the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.
“All of Egypt’s allies in the West have made it absolutely clear to them what a travesty this trial has been,” Atallah said, “and the fact that the court didn’t take any of this into account, and never had any evidence, and still came down with the harshest sentences, is appalling.”
Atallah’s words about the verdict were echoed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, while Kerry called it “chilling and draconian.” Along with expressions of support from such media outlets as the BBC, the Associated Press and CNN International, AJAM chief executive Shihabi noted that the hashtag #FreeAJStaff has generated more than 750 million impressions on Twitter.
Egyptian-born journalist Ayman Mohyeldin, an Al Jazeera English alumnus who now works as a foreign correspondent for NBC News, emailed The Daily Beast: “For those of us who watched and followed the trial closely and saw the evidence presented, you can’t help but doubt the veracity, independence and professionalism of the judiciary. This was not an act of justice but rather injustice. I have known Mohammed Fahmy for years and the notion that he and the other journalists on trial were parts of a Muslim Brotherhood cell or motivated by any other purposes besides journalistic objectives is beyond silly. Today, Egypt’s judiciary has betrayed justice.”
During his on-camera appearances on Monday, Mohyeldin was wearing all black as a silent protest of the verdict.