Australian journalist Peter Greste along with his Al Jazeera English (AJE) colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were sentenced to three years each in prison on Saturday for spreading false news and working without licences.
Judge Hassan Farid delivered the sentence in a packed courtroom at the Police Academy in the Tora Prison complex. Greste was sentenced in absentia, having been deported from Egypt earlier this year. Mohamed received an additional six months’ hard labour and a fine of 5000 Egyptian pounds (about $900).
The defendants were convicted on charges of broadcasting without a licence, broadcasting from the Marriott Hotel as an unregistered facility, broadcasting false news, possession of unregistered equipment, and not being registered with the press syndicate or press centre. Al Jazeera was declared an unregistered organisation.
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Farid addressed the “Egyptian people” in a statement he read before delivering the verdict, saying the three were “not journalists”.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement posted online that she was “dismayed” by the verdict against Greste and she “will continue to pursue all diplomatic avenues with my Egyptian counterpart to clear his name”.
“Mr Greste has indicated that he will consult his lawyers regarding all legal options,” said Bishop.
Amal Clooney, who represents Canadian citizen Fahmy, was present in court and vowed that she and the Canadian embassy would hold meetings with Egyptian officials seeking “immediate deportation” for her client. “Peter Greste was sent back to Australia, there’s no reason why the same thing shouldn’t happen in Mr Fahmy’s case.” She pointed out that this had been “previously promised to him and to the Canadian government”.
Clooney also said that she will seek a “full pardon” for Fahmy, saying Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “himself promised in the past”. She added: “This is the time to intervene in this fiasco.”
Fahmy’s brother, Adel Fahmy, said he was “completely shocked” by the verdict. He added “they keep on disappointing us with an unbelievable judicial system”.
Clooney said the verdict has “put media freedom on the line and has called into question the integrity of the judicial process”.
The journalists were arrested in December 2013, Greste and Fahmy at their base of operations at the Marriott Hotel and Mohamed from his home later that evening. The arrest at the hotel was recorded and broadcast on television to dramatic music, describing the Al Jazeera English bureau staff an their associates as the “Marriott Cell”.
In June 2013 all three journalists were sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison. Mohamed received three additional years for possession of a bullet.
Egypt’s Court of Cassation ordered a retrial in January, but Greste was deported by presidential decree before he was to appear in the retrial. Fahmy, at the time a dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, had hoped he would be deported in the same way and says he was encouraged by the authorities to relinquish his Egyptian citizenship. Despite doing so, Fahmy appeared alongside Mohamed in the retrial along with several defendants, among them students and an NGO worker. Two students were acquitted in Saturday’s hearing, prompting cries of joy from their family members.
Egypt and Al Jazeera’s host nation, Qatar, have been at odds since the ouster of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Egypt is wary of the Gulf nation’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation from which Morsi hailed, and accuses it of meddling in Egypt’s affairs. Egyptian authorities have condemned the Qatari broadcaster for what it sees as bias towards the Brotherhood, especially on the Arabic-language channels.
Al Jazeera Media Network acting director general Dr Mostefa Souag said in a statement following the 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.”
The defendants have insisted the independence of AJE from the Arabic channels and they deny all charges, standing by their work.
Souag stressed: “There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organisations”. He pointed out that a court appointed technical committee “contradicted the accusations made by the public prosecutor and stated in its report that the seized videos were not fabricated”.
The original trial drew criticism internationally as an attack on free press as well as the procedural errors and delays. The retrial was ordered on grounds of insufficient evidence in the original trial, which included a song by Belgian-Australian artist Gotye, a news clip of trotting horses and photos of Greste’s parents on holiday.