Ottawa’s tepid response to an Egyptian judge’s decision to sentence a Canadian journalist to seven years in prison is drawing sharp criticism from his family after governments around the world responded with shock and condemnation to the verdict.
Mohamed Fahmy, the Cairo bureau chief for the Al Jazeera English television network, who holds both Canadian and Egyptian citizenship, was convicted Monday of spreading false news and aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood of former president Mohamed Morsi. Also convicted were Australian reporter Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed.
The response from world foreign ministers was one of outrage and there is talk of pressing Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s new President, to issue a pardon.
Sounding a defiant tone, however, el-Sissi said he will not interfere in judicial affairs, and would respect the court's independence.
He said he called the justice minister late Monday to repeat that sentiment, despite what he described as debate over the rulings against the journalists.
“I told him one word: We will not interfere in judicial matters because the Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary,” he told a military graduation ceremony in a nationally televised speech.
He also urged people to stop commenting or criticizing court rulings.
According to Egypt’s constitution, the president has the right to issue a pardon or commute the sentences. U.S., Australian and other officials have urged el-Sissi to use this right to immediately release the journalists.
Canada’s response was significantly more muted than other countries.
Lynn Yelich, the Minister of State for Consular Affairs, issued a statement saying she was “very disappointed” with the outcome of Mr. Fahmy’s trial and “is concerned that the judicial process that led to his verdict is inconsistent with Egypt’s democratic aspirations.”
Mr. Fahmy’s family, who said they were “completely shattered” by the verdict, had asked for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott did, and personally intervene with a call to Mr. al-Sisi. But that did not happen.
In the angry tumult that followed the convictions, Mr. Fahmy’s brother, Sherif Fahmy, used Twitter to tell Mr. Harper: “I hold you responsible for leaving my brother to rotten (sic) in Egyptian Prison. Was a call or a public statement that difficult?”
Ms. Yelich said she and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird would continue to ask senior Egyptian authorities about Mr. Fahmy’s case and that Canada would continue to provide consular assistance to him. The Canadian government also called in the Egyptian ambassador to Canada to explain his country’s actions.
Mr. Baird met with Egyptian officials in Cairo this spring and asked for a “fair and expeditious” court process as well as for medical assistance for Mr. Fahmy, who fractured his shoulder just before he was taken into custody last December.
But there has been no public condemnation by Mr. Harper or Canadian officials of the arrests. The Fahmy family says consular officials have told them that Canada’s ability to act has been hobbled by the fact that Mr. Fahmy holds dual citizenship.
Adel Fahmy, another brother, told The Globe and Mail on Monday that he was glad for Mr. Baird’s intervention and also for the work of the Canadian embassy. But, he said, Mr. Harper should have made the call.
“It’s for the Prime Minister to try, now it’s too late,” Mr. Fahmy said. “What’s this touchy-feely relationship between Egypt and Canada? What’s going on?”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Monday her country would quickly approach the Egyptian government to ask about an intervention. “I’m sure we’re all shocked by this verdict,” said Ms. Bishop.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the convictions were “chilling and draconian.” And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “appalled.” And other countries of the European Union expressed similar dismay.
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Mr. Harper, said in an e-mail: “The government’s position and concerns are being (and have been) ably communicated by the ministers responsible for consular issues, specifically Ministers Baird and Yelich.”
Mr. Fahmy, who came to Canada with his family about 20 years ago, previously worked for CNN and the BBC. He shouted “I swear they will pay for this,” from the prisoner’s box when the sentences were handed down.
“What really broke my heart is to see how he took it,” Adel Fahmy said. “He couldn’t even control himself, he kept on shoving the guards. He told us don’t be upset, but he was yelling that this is a complete scandal.”
Alex Neve, the secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said the Canadian government has never been as vocal as other countries in demanding the journalists’ release.
Now that there has been a prison term handed down, “we get what feels like a shrugging of the shoulders and a promise to provide ongoing help with prison visits for the family and not much more,” said Mr. Neve. “It’s unacceptable and it stands in such sharp and dramatic contrast to the positions being taken by other governments. And that is not going to be lost on Egyptian officials.”
Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), said his organization has posted on its website a letter that Canadians can send to Mr. Harper or Mr. Baird asking for the Canadian government to lead the international demand for Mr. al-Sisi to issue a pardon.
With a report from Reuters