An Egyptian court on Monday convicted three journalists from Al-Jazeera English, including an Egyptian-Canadian, and sentenced them to seven years in prison each on terrorism-related charges in a case that has brought an outcry from human rights groups.
The sentences were handed down against Egyptian-Canadian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, who also received an extra three years in prison on separate charges.
“I swear they will pay for this,” Fahmy shouted angrily from the defendants’ cage after the sentences were announced. Greste raised his fists in the air.
Lynne Yelich, Canada's minister of state (foreign affairs and consular), released a statement Monday morning that called on the Egyptian government to protect the rights of all individuals “including journalists.”
“Canada is very disappointed with the verdict in the case of Mohamed Fahmy and is concerned that the judicial process that led to his verdict is inconsistent with Egypt’s democratic aspirations,” said the statement. “A fair and transparent legal system is a critical pillar of a future stable and democratic Egypt.”
THE ACCUSED: WHO IS MOHAMED FAHMY?
Fahmy, who covered stories for the New York Times and CNN before working for Al-Jazeera, was the most outspoken over the course of his trial. He and his family moved to Canada in 1991.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has met with Fahmy’s family and told them he discussed Fahmy’s case with his Egyptian counterpart. But Canadian officials warned the family that the journalist’s dual Canadian and Egyptian citizenship placed limits on how much they could do.
In May, the imprisoned Fahmy was honoured with the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom Award.
THE CASE: ACCUSED OF SUPPORTING MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD
Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed were arrested in December as part of a sweeping crackdown on supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi. Because they were arrested in a raid on the Cairo hotel room they were using as an office, they have become known in Egyptian media as the "Marriott Cell."
They were accused of supporting Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities have declared a terrorist organization. They also face charges of fabricating footage to undermine Egypt’s national security and make it appear the country was facing civil war.
The prosecution has offered little evidence to back up the charges against the journalists, presenting video clips that Fahmy's family alleged had been "hand-picked" to show support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The defence was not even allowed to see the prosecution's video evidence in advance unless they paid roughly $180,000, a demand the defence rejected. The defence's own video evidence was thrown out by the court in April, prompting Fahmy to chant from behind bars: "This is a joke!"
The three and their supporters have said they were simply doing their jobs as journalists, covering the wave of protests led by the Brotherhood against the military-backed government installed after Morsi’s ouster on July 3 by then-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is now the president. The police crackdown on the protests has killed hundreds and put thousands more in prison.
There were 17 other co-defendants in the case. Among them, two British journalists and a Dutch journalist who were not in Egypt and eight others being tried in absentia each received 10-year prison sentences. Two of them were acquitted, including the son of Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior figure in the Brotherhood. Most of the co-defendants were students, arrested separately and accused of giving footage to the journalists.
THE REACTION: FAMILY VOWS TO APPEAL VERDICT
- Fahmy’s family: “They just ruined a family,” said Fahmy’s brother Adel, who was attending the session. He said they would appeal the verdict but added that he had little faith in the system. “Everything is corrupt,” he said. Another option Fahmy’s family had earlier said that could be considered was a request for a presidential pardon. (Read more on how the Fahmy family is dealing with the verdict here.)
- Al Jazeera: The managing director of Qatar-based Al Jazeera English, Al Anstey, said in a statement that “not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them.”
- Canada: Attending the session, Canadian Ambassador David Drake said there are many questions over the verdict. “We are very disappointed,” he said. “We are digesting this … We have to put our faith in the judicial system. We don’t understand this particular verdict.”
- United States: Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that he phoned Egypt's Foreign Minister to voice "our serious displeasure" at the verdict, which he called "chilling and draconian."
- Britain: British Ambassador James Watt also said he was disappointed, adding, “Freedom of expression is fundamental to any democracy.”
- Australia: Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a sharp rebuke of Monday's verdict, saying Australia would approach Egypt’s government to see if an intervention was possible. “The Australian government is shocked at the verdict in the Peter Greste case,” Bishop told reporters. “We are deeply dismayed by the fact that a sentence has been imposed and we are appalled by the severity of it. ... The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case.”
- United Nations: UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said Monday that Egypt’s death penalty convictions and mass trials are “obscene and a complete travesty of justice.” In a statement, Pillay said Egypt should release the al-Jazeera reporters and accused Egypt of “crushing” the media.
With reports from The Canadian Press, Reuters and Globe staff
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