23 Jun 2014

Al Jazeera journalists handed seven year jail term in Egypt

Three Al Jazeera journalists – on trial accused of aiding members of a “terrorist organisation” – are sentenced to seven years in prison by an Egyptian court.

The three, who all deny the charge, include Australian Peter Greste, Al Jazeera’s Kenya-based correspondent, and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohammed Fahmy, Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English. The third defendant, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, received an additional three-year jail sentence on a separate charge involving possession of ammunition.

There was a loud gasp in the courtroom as the verdicts were read out. Shaken and near tears, Mr Greste’s brother Michael said: “This is terribly devastating. I am stunned, dumbstruck. I’ve no other words.”

‘Keep our voice loud’

Following the verdict, Qatari news network Al Jazeera urged Egypt to overturn a court ruling against the three journalists, condemning the seven-year prison sentences as unjustified and defying logic.

“There is no justification whatsoever in the detention of our three colleagues for even one minute … to have sentenced them defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice,” Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said in a statement.

“There is only one sensible outcome now. For the verdict to be overturned, and justice to be recognised by Egypt. We must keep our voice loud to call for an end to their detention.”

The three men had looked upbeat as they entered the courtroom in handcuffs, waving at family members who had earlier told journalists they expected them to be acquitted.

‘Terrorism-related charges’

The three were detained in late December and charged with helping a “terrorist organisation” by publishing lies that harmed the national interest and supplying money, equipment and information to a group of 17 Egyptians.

All three journalists have been held at Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison for six months, in a case that has drawn criticism from western governments and human rights groups.

The remaining 17 defendants faced charges of belonging to a “terrorist organisation”, an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been protesting against the government since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July.

Two of the 17 were acquitted, including Anas Beltagi the son of a senior Muslim Brotherhood official who is now in jail.

Four were also sentenced to seven years in jail and a further 11 were sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail.

Western governments and rights groups have voiced concern over freedom of expression in Egypt and the crackdown has raised questions about Egypt’s democratic credentials.

“This is a deeply disappointing result. The Egyptian people have expressed over the past three years their wish for Egypt to be a democracy. Without freedom of the press there is no foundation for democracy,” Britain’s ambassador to Egypt, James Watt, said after the verdict.

British journalists

The ambassador was later summoned to the Foreign Office to be informed of the UK’s displeasure about the case.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “I am appalled by the guilty verdicts handed down today against Egyptian and international journalists in Egypt. Amongst those found guilty were two British journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, who were being tried in absentia.”

A Downing Street spokeswoman added: “The Prime Minister is completely appalled by the guilty verdicts delivered today.”