Egypt hits back at criticism of al-Jazeera convictions

International condemnation of journalists’ sentences ‘unacceptable interference’

Al-Jazeera journalists Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed wait for the verdict. Photograph: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

Al-Jazeera journalists Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed wait for the verdict. Photograph: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

 

Egypt’s foreign ministry has rejected as “politically motivated” the statements issued by foreign countries and bodies critical of the three-year prison sentences imposed on three al-Jazeera journalists on Saturday. It has also described the statements as “unacceptable interference” in Egypt’s legal processes.

Canada, Britain, Australia and the UN have protested against the ruling of the court in the retrial of Mohammed Fahmy, Baher Mohammed and Peter Greste, which had widely been expected to free the men. Their original sentences were for seven years.

EU spokeswoman Catherine Ray said the sentencing of the men “represents a setback for freedom of expression in Egypt”. The sentencing of Mr Greste, a citizen of Australia and EU member Latvia, who was released, deported last February and tried in absentia, prompts questions about the credibility of the trial, she added. “It is a breach of Egypt’s obligations under international law . . . We look forward to the appeals process and reiterate our call for the release of the defendants.”

Mr Greste said he was “devastated” and “appalled” by the decision and called it a “travesty of justice”. He argued throughout the 18 months of legal proceedings that the prosecutor was unable to produce evidence to confirm the most serious allegation against the three men, of broadcasting “false news . . . damaging to national security”.

Mr Greste urged President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to issue a pardon. “This is a grave injustice and the president now has an opportunity to correct that injustice and show the world that Egypt is capable of making a just verdict.”

Deportation

Canada has expressed disappointment at the outcome of the retrial. “This decision severely undermines confidence in the rule of law in Egypt,” said Lynne Yelich, Canada’s minister of state for foreign and consular affairs. “The government of Canada continues to call on the Egyptian government to use all tools at its disposal to resolve Mr Fahmy’s case and allow his immediate return to Canada.”

Mr Mohammed was sentenced to an extra six months for having a spent bullet at his home. The two journalists, and six students tried and convicted with them, were returned to Tora prison at the close of the court session. Mr Mohammed and Mr Fahmy had been free on bail.

Mr Sisi has expressed impatience with the case and said the men should have been deported after their arrest in December 2013, at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, for working as journalists without press accreditation, importing equipment without permission, operating from a hotel rather than a registered office, and spreading “false news”.

Following the Egyptian government’s closure of the offices of al-Jazeera Misr (Egypt) and live streaming channels, the men were operating in breach of Egyptian law, giving rise to the first three accusations. On the fourth, experts investigating the broadcasts prepared by the journalists did not, apparently, find evidence to prove the charge. This could be a basis for an appeal.

Detained at the high tide of the anti-government Muslim Brotherhood marches and attacks on police stations, the journalists have fallen victim to a dispute between Egypt, which calls the Brotherhood a “terrorist” organisation, and Qatar, which supports it.

Egypt is determined to punish al-Jazeera, owned by the Qatari ruling family, for its advocacy of the Brotherhood’s demand for the reinstatement of former president Mohammed Morsi.