An Egyptian judge has jailed three Al Jazeera English journalists for seven years after a trial that has been widely decried as a politicized sham.
A court session at Cairo's Tora Prison convicted the three — Australian reporter Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Cairo Bureau Chief Mohammed Fahmy, and local producer Baher Mohammed — on charges of spreading false news and links with the now-banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group. The trio have been held for the past six months. Mohamed was sentenced to an extra three years on a weapons charge, apparently for possessing a bullet casing.
Nine others, including three other foreign journalists, were tried in absentia and received 10-year sentences.
The trial was widely criticized by rights groups and the international community. Evidence presented by the prosecution was bizarre, offered without context, and did absolutely nothing to support the charges. Much of it took the form of a lengthy series of images, video, and audio clips supposedly intended to prove the defendants’ guilt. This included material from other news networks, including the BBC and VOA. Perhaps, most bizarrely, the prosecution also showed footage of trotting donkeys and horses from a Sky News Arabia program about animal hospitals.
Other supposed evidence has included muffled audio recordings that even the judge complained he couldn’t understand, a tinny recording of the Gotye hit song Somebody That I Used To Know from Fahmy's phone and of a garbled voice telling jokes, then singing, which was played to incredulous laughter from the assembled members of the press.
'This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or "terrorists" simply for doing their job.'
Yet Al Jazeera content has also been shown. Some footage was routine interviews with Islamists, of the kind that almost every local and foreign journalist working in Egypt has made in the past. Other pieces of video, however, were reports on sheep farming and soccer. Key prosecution witnesses have even undermined their own evidence in cross examination.
Amnesty International described the verdict as a "ferocious attack on media freedom." In a statement, Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director, said: “This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job."
Al Jazeera English Managing Director Al Anstey stated that the verdict "defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice." He added that the network would continue to fight for the three men's release. "We must keep our voice loud to call for an end to their detention. Alongside us is a worldwide solidarity, a global call for their release, and a demand for basic freedoms to be respected. The authorities in Egypt need to take responsibility for their actions, and be held to account by the global community."
Many Egyptians do indeed see Al Jazeera as having worked to undermine their country.
However, holding the Egyptian authorities to account doesn't seem to be top of many world leaders' priorities. Yesterday, the US said it would release $575 million in military aid to Egypt after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo shortly in the wake of former armed forces head Abdel Fattah el-Sisi being sworn in as president.
The aid had been frozen since Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, was removed from power by the armed forces last year. It was a move that the US has refused to describe as a coup because it would then be unable to support Egypt's military.
Despite the prosecution’s weak case against these journalists, many Egyptians do indeed see Al Jazeera as having worked to undermine their country. This is partly a result of the perception that Qatar backed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood because the tiny gulf state pumped billions of dollars into government coffers while he was in power. There’s also a broad view that the network’s coverage of the new military-backed government was overtly negative.
An Egyptian administrative court banned Al Jazeera’s Egyptian channel Mubasher Misr, along with three other channels, on those grounds in September 2013. The three Al Jazeera defendants have maintained that they are victims of a politicized dispute with Qatar.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck