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Al Jazeera Journalists Sentenced to Prison in 'Dark Day' for Press Freedom in Egypt

Three Al Jazeera English journalists were found guilty of "aiding a terrorist organization" and sentenced to three years in prison by an Egyptian court.

by VICE News
Aug 29 2015, 1:20pm

Photo by Amr Nabil/AP

Three Al Jazeera English journalists were sentenced to three years in prison by an Egyptian court on Saturday after the men were found guilty of "aiding a terrorist organization" in connection with their coverage of the 2013 ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected head of state.

A court in Cairo handed down the sentences for Egyptian Baher Mohamed, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, and Australian Peter Greste. Mohamed received additional six months in prison for possession of a spent bullet casing.

In his ruling, Judge Hassan Farid said the men did not register to practice journalism in the country, brought in equipment without approval from security officials, and broadcasted from a hotel without permission. The judge also said Al Jazeera broadcast "false news."

The journalists plan to appeal the verdict, and the Associated Press reported that they intend to seek a pardon from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has spoken out against their prosecution.

Press freedom groups, human rights advocates, and Al Jazeera itself all condemned the verdict. "Today's verdict defies logic and common sense," Al Jazeera Media Network's acting director Mostefa Souag said in a statement. "Today's verdict is yet another deliberate attack on press freedom. It is a dark day for the Egyptian judiciary; rather than defend liberties and a free and fair media, they have compromised their independence for political reasons."

Related: Egypt Reacts to Insurgency by Threatening to Jail Journalists

Amnesty International called the guilty verdicts "an affront to justice that sound the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt."

Greste, who was deported in February, was sentenced in abstentia. Fahmy and Mohammed were both present at the hearing, and were immediately taken away by police after the proceeding adjourned.

"We broke no laws, we did nothing unethical or illegal or immoral. And so it's just incomprehensible to see how the court can come to this conclusion," Greste told Al Jazeera. He called the verdict "clearly political."

Several onlookers in court sobbed as the verdict was announced, including Fahmy's wife, Marwa, who broke down in tears, according to the AP.

"I am asking for justice, for fairness," she reportedly said while leaving the court. "I feel extremely disappointed because I love my country and I know that Mohammed loves his country. ... It's really hard for us."

Egyptian security forces arrested the trio of reporters in December 2013 after raiding their hotel suite. The men were accused of being a part of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which the government later declared a terrorist organization.

Egypt has cracked down on Morsi supporters, sentencing hundreds to death. The Qatari government has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, but Doha-based Al Jazeera has maintained its journalists were simply reporting the news.

Related: Germany Releases Journalist it Arrested On Egypt's Behalf

"The whole case has been heavily politicized and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner," Souag said in his statement Saturday. "There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organizations and at no point during the long drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny."

The three reporters were convicted on June 23, 2014, with Greste and Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years. Egypt's Court of Cassation later overturned that ruling and ordered a retrial.

Egyptian officials reportedly asked Fahmy to give up his Egyptian citizenship in order to qualify for deportation, but he has remained in the country. Fahmy's family filed a lawsuit in Canada seeking $100 million from Al Jazeera, claiming the network put the story ahead of employee safety and used its Arabic-language channels to advocate for the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera has said Fahmy should seek compensation from Egypt.

A group of Egyptians were also sentenced to three years in prison alongside Greste, Fahmy, and Mohammed at the hearing on Saturday, including students who said that they were beaten by Egyptian security forces after they were arrested last year.

Abdullah Elshamy, another Al Jazeera journalist, was also arrested in Egypt on August 14, 2013, and accused of helping the Muslim Brotherhood. After going on a hunger strike that lasted 147 days, he was released on medical grounds on June 18, 2014 — 307 days after his initial arrest.

Follow VICE News on Twitter: @vicenews 

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Watch VICE News interview Abdullah Elshamy:

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middle east
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abdel-fattah el-sissi