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Egypt Sentences Three Journalists To Prison

In yet another sign of just what the future of Egypt is likely to look like, three al-Jazeera journalists have been sentenced to prison for allegedly collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood:

CAIRO — A judge on Monday convicted three journalists of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to broadcast false reports of civil strife in Egypt.

Two of the journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison, and the third was given 10 years, the three additional years apparently for his possession of a single bullet. The case has drawn condemnation from international rights groups and Western governments because there was no publicly available evidence that the journalists had either supported the Brotherhood or broadcast anything inaccurate.

(…)

The three journalists convicted on Monday are respected professionals who were reporting for Al Jazeera’s English-language network at the time of their arrest and who had previously worked for established international news organizations. Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen of Egyptian descent, previously worked for CNN and The New York Times; Peter Greste, an Australian, previously worked for the BBC and had spent only a few days in Egypt at the time of his arrest; and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, previously worked for the Japanese news organization The Asahi Shimbun.

All three have been in jail since their arrest in December after a raid on Al Jazeera’s makeshift studio in a Marriott hotel, and they have been described in the state-run and pro-government Egyptian news media as “the Marriott cell.”

Rights advocates have described the charges as farcical. Mr. Mohamed received the additional three years for possession of a weapon; Al Jazeera said that referred to a single spent bullet that Mr. Mohamed had recovered as a souvenir at a protest. Mr. Greste is not a Muslim and had spent little time in the Arab world before his arrest. Mr. Fahmy, who said in court that he was a “liberal” who drinks alcohol, personally participated in a march calling for the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last June and then another demonstration to show support for the new military-backed government.

When asked by the court to screen the allegedly false news reports obtained from the defendants’ laptops, prosecutors showed images that included Mr. Greste’s family vacation, horses grazing in a pasture in Luxor, Egypt, and a news conference by the Kenyan police that Mr. Greste had covered in Nairobi.

At the time of the arrests, street protests and civil strife were common enough in Egypt that such broadcasts would have been far easier to film than to fabricate.

The outcome was, not surprisingly, condemned by many nations and international organizations:

In reaction to the verdict, Australia said it was “appalled” at the jail term given to  Greste, saying it undermined Cairo’s claim to be transitioning to democracy.

“The Australian government is shocked at the verdict,” said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of the seven-year sentence imposed on the Australian for aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood.

“We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it.

“It is hard to credit that the court in this case could have reached this conclusion,” she added.

“The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case.”

The severe sentence came despite Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking to Egypt’s new leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the weekend.

Abbott said he had been encouraged about their conversation on Greste.

In a similar development, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was summoning Egypt’s ambassador over the prison sentences handed down to the journalists.

“I have instructed officials to summon the Egyptian Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today,” Hague said in a statement.

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “completely appalled” by the verdicts.

Besides, the Netherlands also summoned the Egyptian ambassador over Cairo’s heavy sentencing and will raise the issue with the EU.

“I have summoned the Egyptian ambassador to the ministry and will raise this matter with my European Union colleagues in Luxembourg,” Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said in a statement, adding that Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who was tried in absentia, “did not get a fair trial”.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera network also slammed as “unjust” the court decision.

“We condemn… this kind of unjust verdict,” the network’s chief Mustafa Sawaq told the satellite news channel after the verdict of the Cairo court.

As yet, there hasn’t been any statement from the United States, which may not be too surprising given that Secretary of State Kerry was in Cairo over the weekend. More broadly, none of this should be a surprise. Jailing journalists was a favorite pastime for Hosni Mubrarak, and their new military leader is simply following in his footsteps.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

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