Egyptian court sentences 3 Al Jazeera journalists to prison

Journalists working for Qatar-based TV network handed jail terms for broadcasting material harmful to Egypt
Egyptian court sentences 3 Al Jazeera journalists to prison
(Getty Images)
By Reuters
Sat 29 Aug 2015 05:30 PM

An Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera TV journalists to
three years in prison on Saturday for operating without a press license and
broadcasting material harmful to Egypt, a case that has stirred an
international outcry.

The verdict, in
a retrial, was issued against Mohamed Fahmy, a naturalised Canadian who has
given up his Egyptian citizenship, Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Peter
Greste, an Australian who was deported in February.

Rights
advocates say their arrest was part of a crackdown on free speech waged since
the army overthrew President Mohamed Mursi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure,
in July 2013 following mass unrest over his rule.

Judge Hassan
Farid said the defendants, dubbed the "Marriott Cell" by the local
press because they worked out of a hotel belonging to that chain, "are not
journalists and not members of the press syndicate" and broadcast with
unlicensed equipment.

Baher received
an additional six months in prison. The state news agency MENA said that extra
time was handed down because he was in possession of a bullet at the time of
his arrest.

The three men
were originally sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison on charges that
included spreading lies to help a terrorist organisation, a reference to the
Muslim Brotherhood, which the military toppled from power two years ago.

The three
defendants denied all charges, calling them absurd. Three other Egyptians, all
students, also received three-year sentences for the same charges.

Speaking on Al
Jazeera in reaction to Saturday's verdict, Greste said he was shocked at the
scale of the sentence. "Words really don't do justice," he said.
"To be given three-year sentences is outrageous. It is just devastating
for me."

Fahmy and
Mohamed, who were released on bail in February after over a year in jail, were
taken back into custody after the verdict, according to Fahmy's wife, Marwa
Omara. She was in tears after the sentences were read out.

"We will
appeal this verdict and hope it will be reversed. We are now going to be
holding a series of meetings with government officials where we will be asking
for Mr. Fahmy's immediate deportation to Canada," said Fahmy's lawyer,
Amal Clooney.

"His
colleague Peter Greste was sent back to Australia; there is no reason why the
same thing shouldn't happen in Mr. Fahmy's case."

Western
governments have voiced concern for freedom of expression in Egypt since Mursi
was ousted but have not taken concrete steps to promote democracy in Egypt, an
important strategic ally in the Middle East.

"Mohamed
has been sentenced and all I can ask for now is for all his colleagues to stand
by him and to keep calling for his release, but this is extremely unfair,"
said Fahmy's wife.

"I ask the
Canadian government to extract him from here as he is a Canadian citizen and to
deport him back to Canada. All what I am asking (for) is justice and fairness,
for what happened with Peter to be applied to Mohamed."

Canada called
for Fahmy's "full and immediate release," after the verdict.
"Senior Canadian officials in Canada and in Cairo are pressing Egyptian
authorities on Mr. Fahmy's case. This includes advocating for the same
treatment of Mr. Fahmy as other foreign nationals have received," Canadian
Minister of State Lynne Yelich said in a statement.

The US State
Department said in a statement it was "deeply disappointed" by the
verdict, which "undermines the very freedom of expression necessary for
stability and development."

Al Jazeera
condemned the court's decision in a statement read by the channel's general
director, Mostefa Souag.

"This
judgment is a new attack on the freedom of the press, and it's a black day in
the history of the Egyptian judiciary."

"There is
no evidence our colleagues in any way fabricated news. This was comprehensively
debunked by the court's own technical committee," Al Jazeera English
Acting Managing Director Giles Trendle told a news conference in Doha.

Human rights
groups have accused Egyptian authorities of rolling back freedoms won in the
2011 popular uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

In June, the
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt was holding at least
18 journalists behind bars, the highest number since record-keeping began in
1990. They were being held on the pretext of national security to crack down on
media freedoms, it said.

Egypt says it
has launched a security crackdown to eradicate Islamist militant
"terrorists" and deliver stability.

Speaking after
the verdict, the British ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, said the country's
stability should not be built on a "shaky foundation which deprives people
of their rights and undermines the freedom of the press and freedom of
expression."

Amnesty
International called Saturday's verdict "farcical."

"The fact
that two of these journalists are now facing time in jail following two grossly
unfair trials makes a mockery of justice in Egypt," said Philip Luther,
Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

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