CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Monday convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges after a trial dismissed by rights groups as a politically motivated sham. The verdict brought a landslide of international condemnation and calls for the newly elected president to intervene.
The ruling stunned the defendants and their families, many of whom had hoped their loved ones would be released because of international pressure on the case. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who a day earlier had discussed the case in a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, denounced the verdict as "chilling and draconian."
The unprecedented trial of journalists on terror charges was tied up in the government's fierce crackdown on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood since the ouster last year of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi by el-Sissi, then the army chief. Further fueling accusations that the trial was politically motivated is the Egyptian government's deep enmity with the Gulf nation Qatar, which was a close ally of Morsi and which owns the Al-Jazeera network.
Prosecutors had accused the three — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed — of promoting or belonging to the Brotherhood and of falsifying their coverage of protests by Morsi's supporters to hurt Egypt's security and make it appear the country is sliding into civil war. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The journalists, who were detained in December, say they are being prosecuted simply for doing their job and are pawns in the political rivalry. During the 5-month trial, prosecutors presented no evidence backing the charges, at times citing random video footage found with the defendants that even the judge dismissed as irrelevant. They depicted typical activity like editing as a sign of falsification.
Mohammed, the team's producer, had three years added to his 7-year sentence for possessing ammunition, based on a single spent cartridge he picked up at a protest as a souvenir. A Dutch freelance journalist — who did not work for Al-Jazeera but met Fahmy once for tea at the hotel where the team lived and worked — received a 10-year prison sentence. She and two British Al-Jazeera journalists who got the same sentence were tried in absentia.
"They will pay for this, I promise," Fahmy, who was Al-Jazeera English's acting Cairo bureau chief, shouted angrily after the sentences were announced as guards pulled him by his already injured shoulder from the courtroom and his mother and fiancee broke into tears.
"Did anybody see any evidence against him? Did he do anything? Anything?" Fahmy's mother, Wafaa Bassiouni cried.
His brother Adel said the family would appeal. But he had little hope, saying, "This is a screwed up system. This whole government is incompetent."
Greste silently raised a clenched fist in defiance as mayhem erupted in the courtroom. An award-winning correspondent, Greste had only just arrived in Cairo to start work with Al-Jazeera English when he was arrested. He speaks no Arabic and relied on a translator during the proceedings.
In Australia, Greste's father said his family considered the court's decision "a slap in the face and a kick in the groin to Australia as well as all fair-minded people around the world." Juris Greste told reporters in the family's hometown of Brisbane on Tuesday that he was in a state of shock and was struggling to think straight.
"I have to say this morning my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are," Juris Greste told a news conference accompanied by his wife Lois. "You can never prepare yourself for something as painful as this."
He told reporters, "Journalism is not a crime, or you should all be behind bars— it's a simple as that. Our son Peter is an award-winning journalist, he is not a criminal."
Australia's Foreign Affairs department has called in Egypt's deputy ambassador to make an official objection to the court ruling. The ambassador is currently in Cairo.
"We're obviously shocked, dismayed, really bewildered by the decision of the court in Egypt," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters.
Abbott said Australia respects the legitimacy of the Egyptian government, its justice system and the need "to crack down on extremism including the Muslim Brotherhood, but ... it is important that there be due process, it is important that decisions be made on a fair and just basis, so we will be talking to the Greste family, we will be talking to the Egyptian government about what we can do to try to ensure that Peter Greste comes home as quickly as possible."
Abbott said he had a "very constructive discussion" about Greste over the weekend with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
He said that once the Egyptian court system has done its work, "there are options for presidential acts — presidential clemency, presidential pardons and so on — that's why I'm not in the business of being critical of the government."
Peter Greste's brothers, Andrew and Mike Greste, were in Cairo to hear the decision, but have not yet been allowed to visit their brother, Lois Greste said.
The White House called on the government to pardon the defendants or commute their sentences "so they can be released immediately," spokesman Josh Earnest said. El-Sissi has the power to do so. Legal experts say that would come only after appeals are finished, though the constitution does not specify that requirement. The appeals process could take months, especially since courts soon start a summer break. The defendants would remain in prison during an appeal unless the win a separate "suspension of verdict" ruling.
There were 17 co-defendants in the case — seven journalists, and the rest students arrested separately and accused of giving footage to the journalists. Four were sentenced to seven years each, two were acquitted, and the rest — tried in absentia — received 10-year sentences.
When the sentences were pronounced, the students — who unlike the journalists have not denied their support for the Brotherhood — chanted an anthem by Sayed Qutb, a Brotherhood ideologue executed in the 1950s, against the "army of darkness" and shouted, "God is great."
The verdict deepened concerns over rights and civil liberties amid the anti-Islamist crackdown, in which security forces have killed hundreds and arrested thousands. In recent weeks, courts sentenced hundreds to death in mass trials with little evidence and little chance given for the defense.
The crackdown has expanded to dissent by non-Islamists as well, with tough prison sentences against activists convicted under a controversial law issued last year banning protests without prior police permit.
The White House said the rulings were the latest in a series of prosecutions "that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "appalled" and his office summoned Egypt's ambassador to protest the verdicts.
Egypt's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it "strongly rejects any comment by any foreign party shedding doubt on the independence of Egyptian judiciary and its fair rulings."
The Egyptian prosecutors' office said the sentences were a "deterrent."
In part, the trial and harsh sentences show the vehemence of Egypt's enmity with Qatar and Al-Jazeera. Egyptian authorities accuse the station of being biased toward Morsi and acting as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood, a claim the network denies. The network's Arabic-language Egypt channel in particular was widely viewed as giving favorable coverage for the pro-Morsi camp, though the English channel where the sentenced journalists worked was seen as more objective.
Further deepening dismay over the result was the thinness of the evidence.
Amnesty International's observer at the trial, Philip Luther, said the prosecution "failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence" backing the charges. In a statement, he called the sentences "a travesty of justice."
Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed were arrested in December in a raid on the Cairo hotel room they were using as an office. Police confiscated their equipment, computers and other items.
During the trial, prosecutors contended they would present fabricated footage aired by the defendants. They presented some footage showing clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and police, arguing it undermined state authority but without any indication it was faked. They also cited as evidence leaflets that the three had picked up at the protests.
Mostly, they presented video clips also found on the three that had nothing to do with the case — including a report on a veterinary hospital in Cairo, another on Christian life in Egypt and old footage of Greste from previous assignments elsewhere in Africa, including video of animals.
Shaimaa Aboul-kheir, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the verdict violates provisions in the constitution banning the imprisonment of journalists in connection with their work and shows "Egypt is one of the dangerous and more risky countries" of international and local journalists.