On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to three years in a maximum-security prison. According to the verdict issued by Hassan Farid, the judge presiding over the case, Canadian national Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were found guilty of operating without proper press licenses and "spreading false and harmful news" in the country.
The retrial's verdict came as a shock to the crowded Cairo courtroom, where it was largely believed that the journalists would receive a suspended sentence, or time served. During the past 18 months, the case has garnered considerable international controversy, with foreign governments and human rights organizations denouncing the legal proceedings as "a miscarriage of justice," a "sham," and "chilling and draconian."
The three journalists were originally arrested in December 2013, on alleged charges of operating without licenses and "aiding a terrorist organization." In June 2014, Fahmy and Greste were each sentenced to seven years imprisonment, while Mohamed was handed a ten-year sentence (the additional three years for being in possession of a spent bullet).
In July 2014, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said that he "wished they [the journalists] were deported immediately after they were arrested instead of being put on trial." But the president insisted that Egypt's judiciary was independent and therefore he would not intervene until all judicial proceedings, including the appeals process, had ended.
Following Saturday's verdict, Lynne Yelich, Canada's minister of state for Foreign Affairs and Consular, said in a statement, "Canada is disappointed with Mohamed Fahmy's conviction today. This decision severely undermines confidence in the rule of law in Egypt."
The minister's press release went on to say that, "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."
Greste was charged in absentia on Saturday. He was deported back to Australia on February 1 of this year, under a presidential decree el-Sisi issued in November that allowed foreign prisoners to be repatriated to their home countries. Fahmy, originally a dual citizen of both Canada and Egypt, gave up his Egyptian citizenship to be admissible for repatriation under the same law. The day after Greste left Cairo, then–Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird announced that Fahmy's own repatriation was "imminent."
Baird's statement however, would prove empty, as Fahmy's return was continuously pushed back, until eventually it became clear he would remain in Egypt for the entire retrial of the case.
EVERYONE URGES HARPER TO DO MORE
In Canada, with the election trail in full swing, opposition parties this weekend called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do more for Fahmy.
NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar stated that Harper "must take a break from electioneering," speak directly to el-Sisi, and receive "a personal guarantee that Mr. Fahmy will be pardoned and returned to Canada immediately."
"Harper has an obligation to use the full force of the [prime minister's office] to help citizens when they are unjustly imprisoned abroad. His inaction must end today," said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in a press release.
On Sunday, Amal Clooney, one of Fahmy's attorneys, said in an interview with the CBC that she and Troy Lulashnyk, the Canadian ambassador to Egypt, had formally filed for a pardon and deportation for her client to the Egyptian authorities. Clooney has called on el-Sisi to make good on his November statement and intervene in the case to have Fahmy sent back to Canada.
However, she also urged Harper to "engage directly with President Sisi." "If I were a Canadian citizen, I would want to see my prime minister now showing leadership on the global stage," said Clooney.
Ottawa has long been criticized for dragging its feet in finding a diplomatic solution for the journalist's case. While Fahmy has said that the Canadian consular services team in Cairo has been supportive, Ottawa's official statements have come off as lukewarm. While the British, Australian, and American officials strongly condemned the June 2014 verdict, Canada's own reaction was comparatively low-key.
The Conservatives had also been criticized for using Fahmy's dual citizenship as an excuse for their slow response.
Baird initially defended Ottawa's subdued response by saying "bullhorn diplomacy" would not be effective. Following a meeting with his counterpart in Cairo in January, Baird said he was "hopeful" for Fahmy's release. Yet, Fahmy remained in Egypt, even after Greste's release. And seven months later, the Canadian journalist is still there.
Before Fahmy's retrial began in February, his family and supporters began the #HarperCallEgypt campaign on social media to push the prime minister to take more direct action and apply pressure to the Egyptian government.
EGYPT PUSHES OUT PRESS FREEDOM
The trio's case has been heavily criticized as an affront to freedom of the press in the country, and as a highly politicized case, with the journalists having been seen as collateral between a feuding Egypt and Qatar.
While Al Jazeera English is a separate channel and had built up a reputation of impartial reporting, the Qatari network's Egyptian Mubasher Misr channel was seen as biased and sympathetic towards the Brotherhood. Moreover, Doha had offered Brotherhood members refuge following the Egyptian military's ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi and the beginning of the increasing crackdown on the group.
"The charges against Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed were always baseless and politicized and they should never have been arrested and tried in the first place," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt," Clooney told the press outside of Saturday's courtroom. "It sends the message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth, and reporting the news."
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Egypt currently has 22 journalists behind bars. Most of those are accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, says CPJ.
Last month, the Egyptian government passed a sweeping anti-terrorism law that includes a $25,550–$64,000 fine for journalists whose reports on terrorism, militant attacks, and security operations don't align with that of the military's official statements.
Ottawa has continuously stated that it "supports Egypt's transition to democracy." Egypt however, continues to provide evidence that, if it is making any move at all, it is back-pedaling in the opposite direction. The fact that one of its citizens has been convicted a second time to imprisonment in Egypt on dubious charges, should make Canada's muted response more difficult to maintain.