Journalists’ conviction prompts outcry in Egypt

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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 that was 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 that 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 Mr. 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 of Qatar, which was a close ally of Mr. 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 Mr. Morsi’s sup­port­ers to hurt Egypt’s se­cu­rity and make it ap­pear that 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 five-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 such as ed­it­ing as a sign of fal­si­fi­ca­tion.

Mo­ham­med, the team’s pro­ducer, had three years added to his seven-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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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?” cried Mr. Fahmy’s mother, Wa­faa Bas­siouni.

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.”

Mr. Greste si­lently raised a clenched fist in de­fi­ance as may­hem erupted in the court­room. An award-win­ning cor­re­spon­dent, he 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.

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. Mr. 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 they 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.”

Aus­tra­lian For­eign Min­is­ter Julia Bishop said the Aus­tra­lian gov­ern­ment would con­tact Mr. Sissi to seek his in­ter­ven­tion. “We are shocked, ut­terly shocked by this ver­dict,” she told jour­nal­ists in Can­berra.

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 Mr. 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.

egypt - Middle East - Africa - Qatar - John Kerry - North Africa - Josh Earnest - Mohamed Morsi - Egypt government - Cairo - William Hague - Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi - Al-Jazeera


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