An Egyptian court convicted three al-Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to seven years in prison each on terrorism-related charges in a verdict yesterday that stunned their families and was quickly denounced as a blow to freedom of expression.
International pressure mounted on Egypt’s president to pardon the three.
The verdicts against Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed came after a five-month trial that Amnesty International described as a “sham,” calling yesterday’s rulings “a dark day for media freedom in Egypt.”
The three, who have been detained since December last year, contend they are being prosecuted simply for doing their jobs as journalists, covering Islamist protests against the ouster last year of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Three other foreign journalists, two Britons and a Dutch citizen, were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.
Media groups have called the trial political, part of a fight between the government and the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network, which authorities accuse of bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. The network denies any bias.
Prosecutors charged them with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist group, and with fabricating footage to undermine Egypt’s national security and make it appear the country was facing civil war. However, the prosecution presented little evidence in the trial.
“I swear they will pay for this,” Fahmy, who was al-Jazeera English’s acting Cairo bureau chief, shouted angrily from the defendants’ cage after the sentences were announced in the Cairo court. Fahmy is also accused of belonging to the Brotherhood.
Greste, an award-winning correspondent, silently raised a clinched fist in the air.
“They just ruined a family,” said Fahmy’s brother, Adel, who was attending the session.
His mother and fiancee broke down in tears.
“Who did he kill” to get this sentence, Fahmy’s mother, Wafa Bassiouni shouted.
Fahmy’s brother said they would appeal the verdict, but added that he had little faith in the system.
“Everything is corrupt,” he said.
Greste’s brother Andrew said he was “gutted” and also vowed to appeal.
The three received sentences of seven years each in a maximum security prison. Mohammed, the team’s producer, received an extra three years because of additional charges of possession of ammunition.
Al-Jazeera has said that charge was rooted in a spent shell found in his possession — a souvenir he had picked up from protests.
Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julia Bishop said: “We are all shocked by this verdict.”
She said the government would contact newly elected Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah a l-Sissi and ask him to intervene in the case.
She said Egypt’s government should “reflect what message is being sent to the world... We are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle media freedoms.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “appalled.”