Powerful international condemnations followed angry scenes at Cairo’s criminal court yesterday, after Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste and two of his colleagues were sentenced to harsh prison terms.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences “chilling” and “draconian”, a day after he visited Egypt to bed down the US’s relationship with new President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.
UK Foreign Secretary Willam Hague was even more direct, summoning Egyptian ambassador Ashraf Elkholy and saying he was “appalled” by the guilty verdicts. He said in a statement:
“I am particularly concerned by unacceptable procedural shortcomings during the trial process, including that key prosecution evidence was not made available to the defence team.”
Even Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt strongly denounced the verdict, despite the country having nothing to do with the trial.
That verdict handed down seven-year terms in a maximum-security prison to Greste and Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, and their colleague, Baher Mohamed, received an extra three-year sentence because police found a bullet in his house.
Inside the court, Amnesty International trial observer Mohamed Lotfy said the atmosphere was one of disbelief. Fahmy’s mother was shouting that the verdict was unfair while Greste’s family was in shock, he told Crikey.
A statement from the Public Prosecutor’s office last night said the 16 Egyptians on trial, including Canadian-Egyptian Fahmy, were charged with joining a “terrorist group” — the Muslim Brotherhood, harming national security and unity, and “utilising terrorist methods to achieve [these] goals”.
The four foreigners, which included Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane who’d worked for Al Jazeera in Egypt, and Dutch woman Rena Netjes, who hadn’t, were accused of equally nebulous crimes including funding the Egyptian defendants, “possession of printouts and recordings” for foreign broadcast to give the impression Egypt was fighting a civil war, and producing fake news stories to help the Muslim Brotherhood.
Of the 20 defendants, 11 were convicted in absentia with 10-year sentences, four students received seven-year sentences, and two were acquitted.
Lotfy attended the trial from the beginning and was devastated by the result. “This was a very bad day,” he said. “You have to look at this trial as part of the use of the judiciary to crackdown on political dissent.”
It’s a crackdown that includes turning a blind eye to imprisoning somewhere between 16,000 and 41,000 people in regular and extra-judicial prisons, torture, and the use of heavy-handed police tactics on peaceful protests, while arresting activists for illegal protesting or belonging to banned groups.
Daily News Egypt journalist Aaron Rose also followed the trial from day one and said it was a continuing exhibition of “gross incompetence” by the prosecution. He told Crikey one of the most damning — and strange — events was when the key technical experts for the prosecution couldn’t remember which footage the journalists were supposed to have tampered with and didn’t know if the equipment was authorised. Nor could the expert asses whether the men were a threat to national security.
Other “bizarre” problems were the presentation of a Gotye song, Greste’s family photos, and footage from East Africa as evidence, as well as the prosecution’s demand that Fahmy’s lawyer pay 1.2 million Egyptian pounds for video evidence against him.
Speculation is now rising over what will happen next. Lotfy says the defendants could appeal, and it would be up to the court whether to allow it, or to order a retrial. Another option is the defendants will received suspended sentences or drastically reduced terms, but Rose says in his experience of covering Egyptian trials suspended sentences tended to be given on the same day as the verdict.
The new constitution also allows the president to hand out pardons at any time.