It's been nearly 400 days since Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and two of his Al Jazeera colleagues, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, were imprisoned while covering the aftermath of the Egyptian military's overthrow of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. The three have been subjected to harsh conditions in a case that Amnesty International has denounced as a "complete sham." And after a visit by Foreign Minister John Baird ended Thursday with no tangible progress on the case, Fahmy is urging his government to do more.
"I understand that the ability of the Canadian government to help me is limited by the rules of diplomacy," Fahmy said in a statement on Thursday. "But I do believe that Prime Minister Harper could do more to obtain my release if he were to directly intervene in our case."
Fahmy's plea came hours after a meeting between Baird and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri in Cairo yielded no results. In vague language that avoided any direct criticism of Fahmy's ordeal, the Canadian Foreign Minister told reporters he had a "constructive and fruitful" discussion and hopes for a resolution "sooner rather than later."
Calling the issue "complex", Baird added: "I didn't leave Canada with any expectation that we would solve [it] today... I think the [Egyptian] minister has an understanding of how important this is to me, how important this is to all Canadians."
The "Al Jazeera 3" were sentenced to between seven and ten years last June after being convicted of "spreading false news" on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which former president Morsi belonged. Prosecutors failed to present any incriminating evidence during the trial.
Instead, the court was shown excerpts of the journalists' dispatches, footage of the raid on their hotel room accompanied by the soundtrack to Thor, and other videos seemingly chosen at random, including galloping horses and an Australian pop song. A retrial was ordered this month over procedural flaws, but all remain imprisoned with no court date set. Fahmy needs urgent medical care: he is suffering from Hepatitis C and a dislocated shoulder. The trio's treatment has been condemned by more than 150 rights groups and governments around the world.
Meanwhile, Canada has been conspicuously restrained. Government officials have barely raised the case in public. When reached for comment, Ministy of State spokesperson Erica Meekes wrote, "Canada calls on the Egyptian government to protect the rights of all individuals, including journalists, in keeping with the spirit of Egypt's new constitution and the desire of all Egyptians to guide a fully democratic country."
Foreign Minister Baird, who has previously rejected the use of "bullhorn diplomacy" to win Fahmy's freedom, said Thursday that "threats or tough talk" won't help. Baird also described the case as a "consular issue," shunning the language of counterparts like US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has called the Al Jazeera sentences "chilling, draconian," and a violation of "the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the real rule of law."
The case has come as part of a wider crackdown by the military regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that includes the mass killing and imprisonment of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, collective death sentences by the hundreds, and the jailing of scores of activists and at least eight other journalists. In a joint statement as Sisi transitioned from military junta leader to President in June—just two weeks before the journalists' sentencing—Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warned that the Egyptian authorities were "engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt's modern history."
Baird ignored these concerns during his stop in Cairo, instead expressing "Canada's strong support for the new government of Egypt and its transition to democracy and the inclusion of human rights and rule of law." Calling Fahmy's imprisonment "the only major irritant in our bilateral relationship," Baird heaped praise on Sisi's fight against "the terrorist acts of the Muslim Brotherhood." He also unveiled $2 million in funding for Egyptian law enforcement, as well as a new program for Canadian forces to train their Egyptian counterparts in Ottawa and Cairo.
The timing of Baird's visit had raised hopes he'd leave Egypt with Fahmy at his side. The retrial in the case was ordered just two weeks ago, and President Sisi recently enacted a decree allowing him to deport jailed foreigners back to their home countries. Although he was born in Egypt, Fahmy was raised in Montreal and holds a Canadian passport.
Fahmy had such anticipation for Baird's visit that he didn't sleep the night before, and told reporters his bags were already packed. Fahmy's fiancé, Marwa Omara, said the family had "expected that the deal would be sealed during Mr. Baird's visit. However it seems that... there is no decision made or nothing will be done." Fahmy's attorneys, Amal Clooney and Lorne Waldman, also voiced their disappointment "that nothing more concrete was announced."
In fairness, the Harper government had already lowered expectations. On the eve of Baird's visit, an anonymous Canadian official suggested that the Sisi regime would appear weak if it let Fahmy go. "How does it look for Egypt," the official asked hypothetically, "if Baird rolls in there and leaves with a prisoner? It looks like they [Egypt] are under the thumb of a western country."
It's hard to argue with that perception when the specific western country's own officials are disseminating it. A better question might be why the Harper government would make such statements other than to give Sisi a pass to keep Fahmy locked up.
It's quite possible Fahmy will be released in the coming days or weeks after the Egyptian regime decides a year in prison is enough for a journalist who was just doing his job. But as Fahmy himself suggests, the Canadian government's lax response and its growing ties with the Sisi regime raise troubling questions that go far beyond his individual case.
"My situation and the ongoing legal limbo that I am enduring affects all Canadians who are in the Middle East because it shows that anyone, regardless of how innocent, can become a victim of the political turbulence here," Fahmy said in his statement. "And rest assured there will be other Canadians who will suffer like me as long as there is such injustice in this region."
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