New trial, But No Freedom for Al-Jazeera Journalists Held in Egypt

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New trial, But No Freedom for Al-Jazeera Journalists Held in Egypt

'The trial of these three men was a complete farce. Their only crime was to challenge the political narrative of the authorities. All three are prisoners of conscience, targeted simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression in carrying out legitimate activities as journalists.'

Baher Mohamed, Mohammed Fahmy and Peter Greste in court in Cairo in March. (Photograph: Heba Elkholy/A)

In a slightly positive but mostly disappointing development to their families and advocates of press freedom around the world, three journalists detained by the Egyptian government for more than a year were granted a retrial by an appeals court on New Years Day but will remained in prison until that trial takes places sometime later this year.

As Patrick Kingsley reports for the Guardian from Cairo:

After more than a year in jail, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohamed now face several further months behind bars, with no date for a new hearing set. Fahmy and Greste could still be deported under the terms of a recent presidential decree that allows foreign nationals to serve sentences in their home countries, but President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s office did not respond to a request for comment about his intentions.

The hearing spanned two sessions that lasted for a total of less than 30 minutes, with both the defendants and reporters barred from entry. Defence lawyers were given just minutes to explain their clients’ innocence, with one calling the prosecution’s evidence “laughable”.

After the verdict, the families and lawyers of the detainees reacted with disappointment, having earlier expressed hope of a conditional release.

Greste’s mother, Lois, was initially lost for words, saying simply: “I can’t believe it.” His father, Juris, said: “I’m shocked, I’m shocked.”

Later, Lois said: “We need some time to process this. It is not as positive as we had hoped for.”

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

In a message from his Twitter account, Fahmy was able to express his optimism even as he prepared his return to a prison cell:

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reacted to the verdict with scorn.

"By calling for a retrial the Egyptian courts are prolonging the injustice that Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed have faced," said Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director Hassiba Hadjsahraoui. "These men should never have been jailed in the first place and should not have to spend one more day in prison. Instead of prolonging their unjust detention pending a retrial, they must be freed immediately."

According to Amnesty's estimate, at least 16,000 people have been detained as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent in Egypt since the overthrow of the democratically-elected government in 2013. Egyptians activists inside the country say the true figure is much higher. Journalists perceived by the government to be a threat have been a consistent target and the prosecution of the Al-Jazeera journalists became a rallying cry for press freedom advocates throughout 2014.

“We urge the judicial authorities to dismiss all the charges and acquit the Al-Jazeera journalists at the new trial,” said Lucie Morillon, program director for Reporters Without Borders, in response to the retrial announcement.

"They are not guilty on any of the charges and, in reality, are paying the price of the regime’s persecution of media with real or imagined links to the Muslim Brotherhood. We also call on the authorities to ensure that the new trial is conducted fairly, not a sham trial as the last one was. And the journalists must be released without delay."

Reporters Without Borders used the occasion to also call for the release of the 13 other journalists detained in Egypt, which it said now ranks fourth among nations who imprison journalists for simply doing their job. The nations ranked higher include China, Eritrea and Iran.

"[Egyptian] courts are busy locking up government critics and political activists," said Amnesty's Hadjsahraoui, "while letting security forces and officials responsible for gross human rights violations walk free."

He continued, "The trial of these three men was a complete farce. Their only crime was to challenge the political narrative of the authorities. All three are prisoners of conscience, targeted simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression in carrying out legitimate activities as journalists."

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