An Egyptian judge on Monday sentenced three journalists for the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera to between seven and 10 years in prison on terrorism-related charges, stunning their supporters and raising an immediate outcry from human rights advocates.
The harsh sentence came only a day after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited Cairo and told Egyptian officials that the Obama administration would like to see the men freed. The charges against the journalists are widely viewed as politicized, stemming from Egypt’s anger over Qatari criticism of the Egyptian military’s deposing of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last summer.
The three -- Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed -- all work for Al Jazeera’s English-language service. All have strongly denied any wrongdoing, and defense lawyers said the sentences would be appealed.
The journalists have already been jailed for nearly six months following their arrests at the end of December. They have been vilified in the official Egyptian media as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement of the ousted Morsi. State-run and pro-military outlets called them the “Marriott cell,” in reference to the Cairo hotel where they worked out of a suite.
For nearly a year, Egypt has been engaged in a sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood, an operation that has expanded over the months to include some secular and liberal critics as well. Thousands have been jailed and hundreds killed in street clashes between Brotherhood supporters and security forces.
The Canadian and Australian ambassadors to Egypt were in the courtroom for Monday’s verdict, and both expressed shock and bewilderment at the outcome. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her government was “appalled” by the sentencing and would explore means of legal intervention, such as a presidential pardon. Appeals in Egypt’s creaking court system can be a years-long process.
Al Jazeera denounced the verdicts, saying in a statement that the court outcome “defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice.”
Egypt has consistently defended the draconian penalties meted out by its courts against alleged members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood as the work of an independent judiciary in which the executive branch should not interfere. In recent months, Egyptian judges have frequently presided over mass tribunals that sometimes result in death sentences for hundreds of defendants at a time.
Court proceedings against the Al Jazeera journalists, spread out over 12 hearings, produced darkly farcical moments. Investigators called to testify acknowledged they could not produce proof of any kind that the three had made false reports or endangered Egypt’s national security. Belongings seized from the hotel suite were displayed in court as evidence, including mundane objects such as cellphones and microphones. The court viewed allegedly incriminating videos that featured subjects including animal welfare and months-old news conference footage.
In addition to the seven-year sentence on charges against the three that included spreading false news and harming Egypt’s security, Baher Mohammed, an Egyptian national, received an additional three-year term for on a charge of possessing ammunition.
The judge also handed down 10-year sentences against three foreign journalists -- two Britons and a Dutch national -- who were tried in absentia. Two work for Al Jazeera, but the Dutch journalist, who has left Egypt, had no connection to the broadcaster. Among other defendants in the case, two were acquitted and four others received seven-year sentences.
Hassan is a special correspondent.