International outrage at Egypt’s crackdown on dissent intensified yesterday after three journalists for al-Jazeera English were sentenced to seven years in jail for endangering national security.
US secretary of state John Kerry said the verdict was "chilling and draconian", British prime minister David Cameron condemned it as "completely appalling" and Australia's foreign minister Julie Bishop – whose fellow countryman Peter Greste was one of those convicted – said the "Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case".
Australia, the Netherlands and Britain summoned their respective Egyptian ambassadors to explain the verdict in what marked the fiercest international condemnation of Egypt's crackdown on dissent since the murder of more than 600 anti- government protesters in August last year.
The backlash followed the sentencing of former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, ex-CNN journalist Mohamed Fahmy and local producer Baher Mohamed to seven years respectively for endangering Egypt's national security, falsifying news and helping terrorists. Mr Mohamed was given an additional three-year term on weapons charges.
Four students and activists indicted in the case were sentenced to seven years.
Rights campaigners portrayed the verdict as a frightening assault on what remains of Egyptian free speech. But it also represented a slapdown to American diplomacy, coming only a day after John Kerry, America's top diplomat, landed in Egypt for a brief meeting with Egypt's president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in which he raised the impending trial in their discussion and called for Egypt to improve its human rights record. That a guilty verdict was still reached hours later, despite Kerry confirming the return of US military and economic aid to Egypt, represented an embarrassment for US diplomacy, analysts argued.
In court, 10-year sentences were also handed to British journalists
and the Dutch reporter
, who were tried in absentia.
The verdict came despite prosecutors failing “to produce a single shred of solid evidence”, according to Amnesty International, which monitored the trial.
Family and friends of the convicted men broke down in tears, while inside the defendants’ cage the journalists reacted with defiance.
Mr Greste, who had only been reporting in Egypt for a fortnight when he was arrested last December, silently held his arm aloft. Mr Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian national, clung to the bars of the cage as he was pulled away by police, shouting: “They’ll pay for this. I promise you they’ll pay for this.”
Mr Fahmy's mother and fiancée both broke down in tears, while his brother Adel, who had travelled from his home in Kuwait for the verdict, reacted with fury. "This is not a system," he said. "This is not a country. They've ruined our lives. It shows everything that's wrong with the system: it's corrupt. This country is corrupt through and through."
‘Difficult to comprehend’ Mr Greste’s
brothers, Mike and Andrew, who came from Australia to attend court, were grim-faced. “I’m just stunned,” said Andrew Greste, as police pushed reporters from the courtroom. “It’s difficult to comprehend how they can have reached this decision.”
Evidence provided by the prosecution included footage from channels and events that had nothing to do with Egyptian politics or al-Jazeera. It included videos of trotting horses filmed by Sky News Arabia, a song by the Australian singer Gotye, and a BBC documentary from Somalia.
The prosecution’s case was also severely undermined by the retraction of key testimonies from three lead witnesses, who admitted during proceedings they did not know whether the three journalists had undermined national security – contradicting written claims they made before the trial.
Ostensibly, the trial was a broadside against al-Jazeera, a Qatar-owned news channel that Egypt’s government feels is biased towards Sisi’s predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.
In an official Amnesty statement, the group called the verdict a “dark day” for press freedom. – (Guardian service)