Egypt Sentenced Three Journalists to Jail for Doing Their Job

Egyptian judges have been prone to extreme and barely explicable decisions, including throwing mass death sentences around like confetti, but when you have seen a farce happen in front of you—and that is what this trial with its guilty verdict was—it's...

|
Jun 24 2014, 4:28pm

Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste at a court appearance on the 1st of June

The moment the judge announced that the three Al Jazeera journalists would spend the next seven years or more in jail, an audible gasp was heard throughout the courtroom.

The mother and fiancée of Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian-Egyptian producer, begun to cry. As they, and other relatives of the accused tried to make their way across the courtroom to the caged dock whether defendants were held, police held them back.

Visibly frustrated, Mohamed's brother Adel stormed from the courtroom. "Everything is corrupted," he said. "We had hope in the judicial system, now we know there is no hope."

Everyone knew that lately, Egyptian judges have been prone to extreme and barely explicable decisions, including throwing mass death sentences around like confetti, but when you have seen a farce happen in front of you—and that is what this trial with its guilty verdict was—it's still surprising.

The three journalists were convicted on the charge that they conspired with members of the Muslim Brotherhood "to gather media materials, manipulate them, and produce fabricated scenes of events in Egypt and broadcast them... in order to assist the terrorist Brotherhood group in achieving its aims," according to a statement by the Public Prosecutor.

The award-winning journalists Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, who have previously worked for the BBC and CNN respectively, were given seven years. Their colleague, producer Baher Mohamed received ten years: the extra three were for the possession of "ammunition," a spent bullet casing collected from the ground after a demonstration, Al Jazeera said.

In the cage alongside them were six other defendants who were accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and conspiring with Al Jazeera. Two of them—oddly, including Anas Beltagy, the son of senior Brotherhood leader Mohammed Beltagy—were acquitted. The others, along with 11 defendants tried in absentia, got ten years in jail.

Before they were dragged from the caged dock, the six non-journalists begun to sing a traditional Brotherhood song, "My brother, you are free behind bars," a relic of the group's decades-long journey through the prisons and police stations of Egypt.

It seemed in the summer of 2012 that that journey might have come to an end, as the group's candidate Mohamed Morsi ascended to the presidency of Egypt. But a year later, a military coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now the country's elected president, sent them tumbling from power, and into the clutches of Egypt's police and judges once more.

There is no evidence that the journalists support the Brotherhood. Indeed, Fahmy not only marched against Morsi on June 30 last year, the day of mass demonstrations that sealed his fate. He also joined demonstrations on July 26 to "authorize" Sisi to deal with "terrorism," which meant, mostly, the Brotherhood. Now he himself has become swept up in the very same tide of anti-Brotherhood, pro-security state sentiment which was inaugurated on those days.

The journalists have become pawns in a regional conflict which pits the Muslim Brotherhood and its political ally Qatar against the other Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and other anti-Brotherhood forces, including the Egyptian establishment.

“The verdict provides further evidence that Egyptian authorities will stop at nothing in the ruthless campaign to crush anyone who challenges the official narrative, regardless of how questionable the evidence against them is,” said Philip Luther of Amnesty International.

The evidence, such as it was, was pretty questionable.

In a British court, prosecuting lawyers have to present a "skeleton" argument which explains how the evidence and testimony they introduce is supposed to support a guilty verdict. In Egypt, there is no such requirement, and pieces of "evidence"—mostly photographs and video seized from the journalists' studio when it was raided—were introduced in most cases without any clear idea of what they had to do with allegations of a terrorist conspiracy.

The court saw videos of galloping horses and sheep, and a vintage photograph of a man holding a gun. It watched a video of a press conference held in Nairobi, where Greste was formerly based. The press conference was an English, but the judge doesn't speak English and did not have a translator.

In a session on May 22, a music video by the Australian singer Gotye was played. For much of the trial, the judge sported sunglasses.

The crux of the prosecution's case ought to have been that video material was fabricated by the defendants. On the 1st of June defence lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr asked the head of a technical committee which the court asked to examine the contents of the team's hard drives, whether he was aware of any specific video which had been manipulated in order to give a false or misleading impression. He said that he was not.

The poor quality of the prosecution's case, and the release of fellow Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah al-Shamy on health grounds on Wednesday last week, raised the hopes of the journalists and their families. Al-Shamy had been imprisoned without charge for more than ten months, and had been on hunger strike for more than four months.

In order to bolster popular opinion against the journalists, a video tape of the arrest of two of them during a raid on their studio in central Cairo hotel on December 29 was played on national television, set to music from Hollywood superhero movie Thor: the Dark World.

The verdict today was a blow to the hopes of the journalists and their families, and to press freedom and free expression in Egypt. But because this trial has been so well covered, it has also been a glimpse into the weird and capricious world of the Egyptian courts, a system which for many people determines not only whether they walk free or spend years of their life in cramped cells with only an hour a day for exercise, but whether they live or die.

Follow Tom Dale on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels