Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi. Egypt is punishing people for exercising basic rights that are essential to any democratic transition, and US legislation requires progress on those rights before the Obama administration can certify additional military aid.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director
(Beirut) – A Cairo court sentenced three Al Jazeera English staff members to multi-year prison sentences on June 23, 2014, after a trial in which prosecutors failed to present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing. These convictions are the latest step in Egypt’s unrelenting assault on free expression, dramatically reversing gains made following the January 25, 2011 uprising.
The verdict comes the day after US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry. During the meeting, news media reported, Kerry said he was “absolutely confident” that the US would soon restore suspended aid to Egypt, noting that President al-Sisi “gave me a very strong sense of his commitment” to “a re-evaluation of the judicial process.”
“Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt is punishing people for exercising basic rights that are essential to any democratic transition, and US legislation requires progress on those rights before the Obama administration can certify additional military aid.”
The Al Jazeera English bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egypt national, and a correspondent, Peter Greste, an Australian, were each sentenced to seven years in prison, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, was sentenced to 10 years. The charges included editing video footage to falsely “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war,” operating broadcast equipment without a license, and membership in and support for a “terrorist organization.” Human Rights Watch reviewed the material prosecutors presented in court and spoke with independent observers who monitored the trial and found no evidence indicating any criminal wrongdoing.
The men were arrested on December 29, 2013, and have been detained since.
The court sentenced 11 other journalists and opposition members in absentia to 10 years behind bars. Four other co-defendants in the case also received seven-year sentences, while two others were acquitted.
Fahmy, Greste, and Mohamed are among at least 15 journalists in detention in Egypt, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
These convictions should be quashed, charges dropped, and the journalists immediately released, Human Rights Watch said.
In a separate mass trial today, Aswat Masriyareported, a court sentenced 238 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to prison, some to life, on charges stemming from violence in the Dakahlia province last summer that killed two people.
“Unfortunately, today’s verdict is not an aberration,” Stork said. “In President al-Sisi’s Egypt, simply practicing professional journalism is a crime, and the new constitution’s guarantees of free expression are not worth the paper they’re written on.”