Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was sentenced to three years in a high security prison by a Cairo court on Saturday, crushing hopes that a retrial would bring to an end an 18-month ordeal that has sparked widespread condemnation and thrown Egypt's crackdown on media into the international spotlight.
Mr. Fahmy, his producer Baher Mohamed and Australian journalist Peter Greste were convicted of a slew of technical charges as well as charges of broadcasting false news. Mr. Mohamed received an additional six months in jail with hard labour and a fine of 5000 Egyptian pounds ($843 CAD), although it was not immediately clear why, as the judge did not give a reason while delivering the verdict.
Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohamed, who listened to Judge Hassan Farid deliver his verdict from a soundproof cage in Cairo's Tora prison complex, were immediately taken away by police.
The sentence can be appealed in the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest appeals court.
Last year, Mr. Fahmy, the former Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English, and his colleagues were sentenced to seven to ten years in jail on terror-related charges in a trial widely condemned as a farce. In January of this year, the original verdict was overturned after an appeals court ruled there was a lack of evidence against the journalists.
Earlier in the retrial, a court appointed technical committee tasked with reviewing video footage from the journalists ruled footage had not been edited and that there was no proof it had ever been broadcast. The committee's ruling had seemed to debunk charges of broadcasting false news, but Saturday's verdict proved otherwise.
Other charges that Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohamed were convicted on included illegally broadcasting from the Marriott Hotel because it was not a licensed broadcasting facility and possession of unlicensed broadcasting equipment.
The journalists were also convicted on charges of working without being a registered journalist at the Cairo press center and press syndicate. However, Mr. Fahmy and his colleagues were working as broadcast journalists and the country's press syndicate is only open to newspaper journalists. A lawyer from Cairo's press syndicate, however, was present at earlier sessions of the retrial to support the journalists.
"[This case] has put media freedom on the line and it has also called into question the integrity of the judicial process...any fair and independent tribunal would have found an acquittal on all charges, and that is not what happened today," said Amal Clooney, the human rights barrister who has been representing Mr. Fahmy internationally.
"It sets a dangerous precedent for Egypt that journalists can be locked up simply for reporting the news and that courts can be used as political tools," Mrs. Clooney said as she left the court, adding that she would be immediately holding a series of meetings with government officials to demand Mr. Fahmy's immediate deportation to Canada and to ask for a full pardon.
Mr. Greste, who had been deported in January under a presidential decree that allows for foreign nationals accused or convicted of a crime in Egypt to be sent back to their home country, was also sentenced to three years in jail, after the judge refused to remove his name from the court case. His conviction could complicate his ability to travel internationally as he now risks being extradited to Egypt when traveling to foreign countries.
Three students included in the case were also convicted and sentenced to three years in jail alongside Mr. Fahmy and his colleagues. While the court had accused the defendants of working together, the journalists and the students said they had never met until they were originally thrown in jail together. Despite demands by the defendants' lawyers, the judge refused to try them separately.
The wife of Mr. Mohamed's best friend and the owner of a religious NGO were acquitted in the retrial. Both had been included in the case for reasons unclear to any of the defendants. Families of the two erupted in cheers and celebration upon hearing news of their acquittal.
"The conviction of Mohamed Fahmy on completely spurious charges demonstrates that there is neither press freedom in Egypt nor fairness in the Egyptian judicial system," said Tom Henheffer, Executive Director at Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in a statement. "The Egyptian government must ensure his swift deportation to Canada; this will require rapid action from the Canadian government, and we call on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to use all available resources to bring Mohamed back home."
The nearly two-year ordeal first began when Mr. Fahmy, an award-winning journalist who previously worked for CNN, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and Peter Greste, an award-winning journalist who previously worked for the BBC, were arrested in December 2013 by police who raided their hotel room at Cairo's Marriott Hotel, where the Al Jazeera English journalists had been working. Police separately stormed Mr. Mohamed's home late at night, shot his dog and hauled him to jail as his young children slept.
Footage of the police raid at the Marriott hotel was leaked to Egyptian media, which dubbed the journalists "the Marriott cell," set to the soundtrack of "Thor: The Dark World," and then broadcast across the country.
After they were arrested, a range of terror charges were leveled against the journalists, including aiding a terrorist group and fabricating news to harm Egypt's national security. The journalists were convicted on evidence that included unrelated wildlife documentaries, photos from Mr. Greste's family vacations in Europe and an MP3 of Gotye's "Somebody that I used to Know," and sentenced to seven years in jail, with Mr. Mohamed receiving an additional three for the possession of a single bullet he picked up as a souvenir while reporting in Libya.
After the trio spent more than 400 days in jail, Mr. Greste was deported. Mr. Fahmy said he was told by Egyptian and Canadian officials that he too would be if he gave up his Egyptian citizenship. After renouncing his citizenship, he was not released; he and Mr. Mohamed were granted bail and a second retrial began.
Mr. Fahmy, a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood who took to the streets in a march to show his support for Egypt's now-president Abdel Fattah al-Sissi's so-called war on terrorism in the summer of 2013, has said he and his colleagues have been pawns in a rift between Egypt and Qatar.
Qatar, who owns the Al Jazeera Network, has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which former president Mohamed Morsi hailed. Mr. Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by then army general and now-president Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in July 2013 and tensions between the two countries have been fraught.
Mr. Fahmy has accused Al Jazeera of grave negligence and filed a $100-million dollar lawsuit in Canada against the network, saying Al Jazeera Mubasher, the network's Egyptian-affiliate now banned in Egypt, acted as a "thinly veiled mouthpiece" of the government of former president Mohamed Morsi and a propaganda arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Before his conviction, Mr. Fahmy also said the network should be held to account for any charges pertaining to licensing.
Al Jazeera has denied Mr. Fahmy's allegations, saying Mr. Fahmy was under stress as a result of the ordeal. In a statement, the network condemned Saturday's verdict.
"Today's verdict is yet another deliberate attack on press freedom. It is a dark day for the Egyptian judiciary; rather than defend liberties and a free and fair media they have compromised their independence for political reasons," said Al Jazeera Media Network's Acting Director General Dr. Mostefa Souag in a statement following the verdict.
The Canadian government has repeatedly said it has raised Mr. Fahmy's case "at the highest level" with Egyptian authorities and called for his immediate return to Canada. Canadian ambassador Troy Lulashnyk, who was present in court, told journalists after the verdict that he would follow up with senior Egyptian officials to push for Mr. Fahmy's deportation.
"Obviously Canada is deeply disappointed in the outcome of this process. We are calling for his full and immediate release and his return to Canada and this is now the time for the government to make that happen," Mr. Lulashnyk said.
But as deportation remains on the table for Mr. Fahmy, for Mr. Mohamed, a sole Egyptian national, deportation does not remain an option. The father of three who missed the birth of his youngest son while he was in jail last year and who spent his last day free on bail celebrating his son's first birthday was able to send one final tweet after his conviction on Saturday.
"Keep shouting for us my colleagues I'm sorry," Mr. Mohamed tweeted. "From now on will not be able to keep in touch with you #FreeAJStaff."