Worldwide Condemnation as Egypt Whisks Al-Jazeera Journalists to Prison
'We consider them to be prisoners of conscience, jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,' says Amnesty International
Outrage and condemnation were the reactions inside a Cairo courtroom and across the world on Saturday after three Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to at least three years in prison by an Egyptian judge.
Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed were convicted of "spreading false news" and acting on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party which was ousted in a military-supported coup in 2013 and which the current government, led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, has now branded a "terrorist" organization.
Though Greste was deported back to Australia in February, both Fahmy and Mohamed (who was given an additional six months compared to his western colleagues) were in court when the ruling was handed down and were immediately whisked away by security personnel.
Mr. Fahmy's wife, Mawra, was reportedly distraught in the wake of the announcement sentence. "I'm all alone," she told journalists in the courtroom. "I don't know what to do - I never expected him to be jailed." And added, "I just want justice."
Taking to his Twitter account, Greste spoke out from Australia to demand justice for his colleagues:
In a trial with no evidence of wrong doing, our convictions can only be politically motivated. We will keep fighting to #FreeAJStaff
— Peter Greste (@PeterGreste) August 29, 2015
Our convictions are unfair and unjust. We will use every tool - legal, diplomatic, political and social - to #FreeAJStaff. Join us! RT
— Peter Greste (@PeterGreste) August 29, 2015
Free press advocates and human rights groups joined Al-Jazeera in deploring the ruling with no merit whatsoever and an atrocious miscarriage of justice.
The sentencing "defies logic and common sense" said Al-Jazeera's acting managing-directer Mostefa Souag in a statement released immediately following the verdict. "The whole case has been heavily politicized and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner," he said. "There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organizations and at no point during the long drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny."
"[This verdict] sends a message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news. And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda." —Amal Clooney, lawyer
Amal Clooney, who is representing the journalists, told reporters at court that "what happened here is an outrage" and said an objective and "indepedent court would have acquitted them fully" of the charges.
"The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt," Clooney continued. "It sends a message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news. And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda."
Amnesty International also condemned the Egyptian court's decision, calling the prison sentences a "death knell for freedom of expression" in the country.
"The fact that two of these journalists are now facing time in jail following two grossly unfair trials makes a mockery of justice in Egypt," said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program. "Today's verdict must be overturned immediately. Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed should be allowed to walk free without conditions. We consider them to be prisoners of conscience, jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist said the high-profile case of the three Al-Jazeera employees is emblematic of the threats faced by all journalists working in Egypt. According to CPJ research, at least 22 journalists were behind bars for their reporting in Egypt on August 12, 2015. Most of the journalists jailed in Egypt are accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour condemned the sentences for Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed and called on "Egyptian authorities to put an end to the abuse of the law which has made Egypt one of the riskiest countries in the world to be a journalist."