Three Al Jazeera reporters were sentenced to seven years in prison in Egypt on Monday on terrorism-related charges, to the shock of their family members, fellow reporters and human rights activists who had expected an acquittal.
Australian reporter Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were convicted of helping a “terrorist organization” by supposedly spreading lies, Reuters reported.
All three denied the charges.
The third defendant, Baher Mohammed, got an additional three-year prison term on a charge related to possession of ammunition.
Reuters reported that a “loud gasp” went through the courtroom after the verdicts were read. Before hearing the sentence, the defendants had “looked upbeat” and waved to family members as they entered the courtroom.
“This is terribly devastating. I am stunned, dumbstruck. I’ve no other words,” Greste’s brother Michael said.
The Associated Press reported that Fahmy shouted from the defendants’ cage, “I swear they will pay for this,” while Greste raised his fists in the air.
“They just ruined a family,” Fahmy’s brother Adel said. “Everything is corrupt.”
The families of Fahmy and Greste vowed that they would appeal their sentences.
The three journalists were detained in December during a sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government has designated a terrorist organization. In previous court appearances, the Al Jazeera journalists were held in cages.
The AP reported:
They also face charges of fabricating footage to undermine Egypt’s national security and make it appear the country was facing civil war. The prosecution has offered little evidence to back up the charges against them.
The three and their supporters have said they were simply doing their jobs as journalists, covering the wave of protests led by the Brotherhood against the military-backed government installed after [ousted President Mohammed] Morsi’s ousted on July 3 by then-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is now the president. The police crackdown on the protests has killed hundreds and put thousands more in prison.
An Al Jazeera reporter tweeted a photo of the New York Times’ final page from its Sunday edition, left blank in support of the jailed journalists with the words: “This is what happens when you silence journalists.”
Human rights groups — as well as the U.S. government — have voiced concerns about crackdowns on the freedom of expression in Egypt since Morsi was deposed last summer.
“We were expecting innocence but there is no justice in this country. Politics is what judges,” defense lawyer Shaaban Saeed said after the verdict.
Britain’s ambassador to Egypt, James Watt, called the decision, “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,” Watt told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi in Cairo Sunday, prompting Human Rights Watch associate Ahmad Shuja to tweet after the verdict, “Looks like Kerry’s visit had no effect.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had appealed to el-Sissi to release Greste.
“I did make the point that Peter Greste was an Australian journalist and I assured him, as a former journalist myself, that Peter Greste would have been reporting the Muslim Brotherhood, not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood because that’s what Australian journalists do,” Abbot said, according to Australia’s ABC network. “I think he understands that this would be a PR coup for the new government if Peter Greste is not dealt with severely.”