An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced three journalists with the Al Jazeera news service for between seven to ten years in jail, concluding a trial that has been widely condemned for its lack of evidence and coming just one day after the U.S. indicated a thawing of ties with Egypt’s government.
Last December, four journalists with Al Jazeera — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, and Egyptians Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fawzy — were arrested in Egypt while attempting to cover the ongoing political turmoil in the country. On Monday, an Egyptian judge sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years in prison and gave Mohamed an additional three years for possession of ammunition. “Mohamed was in possession of a spent bullet casing he had found on the ground during a protest,” Al Jazeera said of its staffer in its reporting on the verdict.
At the time of their arrest, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said that Greste, a journalist formerly with the BBC, had been meeting with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in a hotel room in Cairo. That meeting was part of a plan to use the hotel to “meet with other members and as a media center to broadcast damaging news about the government for Al Jazeera,” the military government alleged. Their trial, which began in February, was widely critiqued for both its affect in suppressing free speech and open journalism in Egypt as well as the lack of evidence provided to actually connect the journalists with terrorism.
“Evidence provided by the prosecution included footage from channels and events with nothing to do with Egyptian politics or al-Jazeera,” the Guardian explains. “It included videos of trotting horses from Sky News Arabia, a song by the Australian singer Gotye, and a BBC documentary from Somalia.”
While Fawzy was released relatively soon after being arrested, the other three journalists were charged with aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which had recently been relabeled as a terrorist organization in Egypt, and spreading false reports. Waiting in jail for their trail, the three joined fellow Al Jazeera reporter Abdallah Elshamy, who had been arrested in June while covering the violent break-up of protests against the military and in support of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. Elshamy was finally released last week after being on a hunger strike for nearly five months.
“This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job,” Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “The only reason these three men are in jail is because the Egyptian authorities don’t like what they have to say. They are prisoners of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released. In Egypt today anyone who dares to challenge the state’s narrative is considered a legitimate target.”
The verdict comes only a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with recently-elected Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, indicating that the United States was ready to repair frayed ties with Egypt. Prior to his election last month, Sisi headed the Egyptian military, which last year removed Muslim Brotherhood-aligned President Morsi from office. At the time, the U.S. was chided for refusing to directly call the situation a coup before indicating that it was cutting off some military aid to Egypt.
After Sisi’s election, however, the cap on military aid appears to have been lifted. “We requested about $650 million in [foreign military funding (FMF)] to be released, and the vast majority of that money has been released,” a senior administration official briefed reporters this weekend. “There is a hold on a limited amount of that money. It’s something around – I think it’s about $70 million that’s still being held.” All told, the Obama administration has requested a total of $1.3 billion in FMF for Egypt for the course of Fiscal Year 2014.
Speaking with Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry on Sunday after meeting with Sisi, Kerry stressed that he had “emphasized also our strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.” Kerry also noted that he’d spoken to Sisi directly about the Al Jazeera journalists on trial, but passed on directly commenting on their plight, explaining that it was better for Sisi to speak on the issue. But, he told journalists, when it comes to the U.S.’ support of Egypt fighting terrorism “the [Apache military helicopters] will come and that they will come very, very soon.”