Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian journalist, was the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera’s English-language network when he was arrested on Dec. 29, 2013, by Egyptian authorities and held in jail for 412 days on charges of terrorism and “broadcasting false news.” He was sentenced to seven years in prison and is currently preparing his appeal case.
I am thankful for the campaign initiated by Al Jazeera and the millions of supporters of Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and I, including the hashtag #FreeAJStaff – thankful to those of you who kept our story alive while we three journalists fought for survival behind bars.
Despite this gratitude, my celebratory mood has been rather reserved in this state of semi-freedom I have enjoyed since being released on bail, pending appeal, by the Egyptian courts.
The integrity I have embraced throughout my journalism career is why I feel obliged to reveal what Al Jazeera has opted to hide from the eyes of the public. I may lose the privilege of being able to write these words if the judge decides to boot me back to prison at any stage of the retrial.
The news I must reveal, unknown to most outside observers, is that unfortunately, there was “evidence” to incriminate us in this case.
This is because Baher Mohamed – my colleague, cellmate, and friend – had confessed, under duress according to him, the result of which was a mind-boggling 20-page testimony he signed which agrees perfectly with the blanket accusations brought against us – accusations which include assisting the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been designated a terrorist group, and fabricating news to portray Egypt as being in a state of civil war. The media did not pick up on the confessions because the press was not allowed in the courtroom during the first twenty minutes while the prosecutor presented the case.
I learned the details of this farcical testimony during my detention, and wrote from prison to two Al Jazeera executives – Salah Negm, the director of news, and Al Anstey, the managing director – demanding that they contest it in court. All we had to do was ask the judge to question Baher again in court, citing duress during the initial interrogation. I also asked management to display in court video reports we produced that would dismiss Baher’s allegations.
An Al Jazeera security representative visited us in prison and relayed the message of the network: “It [the confession] will disappear – don’t worry.” I knew it would not, as I lost sleep behind bars, and indeed it came back to haunt us when the judge referred to it in his judgment report explaining the verdict that led to my seven-year prison sentence.
Upon my release on bail, I spoke to Farag Fathi, the long-time Al Jazeera network lawyer who represented my colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. Because of bad experiences my colleagues had with Mr. Fathi in the past in cases unrelated to ours, I rejected Mr. Fathi and instead employed lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr, whose fees Al Jazeera at first refused to pay because, they said, they were worried he might defame the network in court.
Mr. Fathi told me he had been instructed not to contest Baher’s confessions. Al Jazeera had launched a $150-million civil lawsuit against the Egyptian government a month before our verdict, which apparently took priority over our criminal case. This negligence of responsibility, I believe, contributed directly to our sentencing.
Mr. Fathi then delivered the final blow to me and my two cellmates when he abruptly quit in court, without our prior knowledge, and yelled a denunciation of Al Jazeera: “The network is [selling out] their journalists behind bars by opting to sue Egypt… against my advice.”
I know how the grapevine works in Al Jazeera and that the managers who defend the actions of the channel are only parroting the instructions filtered down from its Qatari chairman, who happens to be from the royal family. It is Qatar’s business if they opt to sue Egypt, but not when I am stuck in a cage in such a politicized case.
I have been clear in my rhetoric that this case is about freedom of speech in the sense that three journalists have been silenced. Yet, what can’t be ignored is the political score-settling between Qatar and Egypt that has left us pawns behind bars. The verdict killed two birds with one stone: Egypt sent a clear message to my fellow reporters to toe the government’s line, and delivered a punch in the face to Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Before the appeal began, I called Al Jazeera from the prison hospital and gave them the choice of appointing one of two prominent lawyers of my choice to represent me. The head of the channel refused both of them because, in his words, “They don’t suit the politics of the channel.” I then politely presented the name of Negad El Borai, a lawyer Al Jazeera had approached earlier in the initial case to defend us (he had been unable due to short notice). Once again, my request was rebuffed -- Al Jazeera would not pay for him. Thankfully, Mr. El Borai agreed to waive the majority of his fees. He did a great job on Jan. 1, 2015, in the appeals court. He stood outside the court in his elegant suit and eloquently defended me to scores of journalists: “If you work for Al Jazeera it does not automatically mean that you are in the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Nevertheless, the e-mail my family received from Mr. Negm, the director of news, relaying the message of his masters was clear. “We will not reimburse you for your legal fees for appeal.”
Amal Clooney, the prominent British-Lebanese lawyer, also waived her fees to represent me and only requested minimal payments for her office staff and expenses related to the job. She wrote a nine-page annex submitted with my appeal in which she highlighted Egypt’s violation of international treaties regarding the lack of due process and the medical negligence in prison that left me with a permanent arm disability. She continues to challenge all parties that have harmed my chances for freedom, including Al Jazeera.
I was able to pay these lawyers their highly reduced fees only after I started a crowd-funding campaign. I am extremely thankful to the hundreds of supporters who donated and sent messages to me in prison, including a $10,000 donation from Sweden’s Kality Foundation and a $23,000 contribution to the next stage of my defence from the London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative.
Today, Al Jazeera has opted to continue its neglect of my case by releasing statements which seek to defame me (even though I had once defended them in court when a prosecutor alleged that Al Jazeera had destroyed Iraq). Part of a statements they submitted to my former employer CNN and British broadcaster Sky News stated: “Mohamed decided to have his own lawyers despite the fact that we elected to cover his legal fees….People reporting what he is saying should be mindful of the strain and literal or effective duress under which he may be speaking. It is telling that he is critical of everyone other than those holding him.”
I have raised my concerns to the network countless times in a constructive manner. They left me no choice but to go public when all my warning signs were met with deaf ears. The managers do not understand that there is no space for mistakes when one’s life is at stake.
I recently asked Amr El Deeb, the new Al Jazeera-appointed lawyer representing Baher: “Are you going to contest his confessions in court in the retrial?” I have received no answer.
I have not lost sight of the Egyptian prosecution who unjustly put me behind bars, and I have been the most outspoken in court and in my statements released from prison throughout the past year against my captors. However, challenging Al Jazeera’s epic negligence on behalf of scores of current and former staff members is also my responsibility before they end up behind bars.Report Typo/Error