By Louisa Loveluck – The Telegraph UK –
Egypt’s regime was accused of jailing journalists for “doing their job” on Saturday when three Al-Jazeera correspondents were sentenced to three years following a retrial that many hoped would end in their freedom.
Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who were arrested in 2013, were sent back to prison after being convicted of “spreading false news”. Peter Greste, an Australian who was freed in February, received the same sentence in absentia.
Mr Mohamed was told that he will serve an extra six months for supposedly possessing a “bullet”, according to a transcript of the court decision.
Three other defendants received a three-year sentence and two were acquitted.
Mr Greste, who was deported from Egypt when he was released six months ago, described the verdict as “devastating” and said his heart went out to his two jailed colleagues. “I can’t begin to tell you just how heavily it weighs on me,” he said in Sydney.
Outside the High Court in Cairo, Amal Clooney, a defence lawyer, said the sentences conveyed a “very dangerous message”, adding: “It sends a message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news.”
The verdict was a surprise development in a long-running legal saga which began with the arrest of the Al-Jazeera team in Cairo in 2013, initially for working without press accreditation. They were then accused of promoting terrorism, supposedly because they had interviewed members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Al-Jazeera network is owned by Qatar and the arrests coincided with a poisonous argument between Egypt and the Gulf state over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The journalists were eventually convicted and jailed for between seven and ten years last summer, accused of terrorism and spreading false news intended to drag Egypt into civil war.
But the case provided a diplomatic headache for Mr Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president of Egypt. Mr Greste was deported in February – and Mr Fahmy and Mr Mohamed released on bail.
Yet the authorities then chose to place them on trial once again. Before passing sentence on Saturday, Mr Justice Hassan Farid told the court that he did not consider the defendants to be journalists because they were not registered with the local press syndicate – overlooking the fact that foreign organisations cannot join this institution.
In private, western diplomats and Egyptian officials had been signalling for months that the defendants could expect to be freed.
The verdict on Saturday caused dismay in the Cairo court. Mr Fahmy’s wife, Marwa Omran, left the courtroom inconsolable. The couple, who were married inside Tora prison, had hoped to be reunited. “Our lives have been destroyed,” said Ms Omran.
Mr Mohamed’s wife, Jehan Rashed, had waited at home for the verdict. The couple have three small children – the youngest was born during their father’s incarceration. “They are waiting for him to come back, but he will not,” said Ms Rashed of her sons. “I’m thinking of everything we’ve been through over the past few years – I just can’t understand this verdict.”
Amnesty International condemned the sentences as a “death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt.”
Tobias Ellwood, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East, said he was “deeply concerned” by the verdict, adding: “We have repeatedly raised this case and the restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt with ministers and senior officials.”
Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been arrested in the two years since President Sisi seized power in a coup. The regime has justified the repression as a necessary response to a violent and fragmented Islamist insurgency.
In some cases, this approach has seemed to make the problem worse. Earlier this month, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, voiced his concern over the “radicalisation that can take place through imprisonment” and a “revolving cycle of terrorism.”
Photo: Canadian Al-Jazeera English journalist Mohammed Fahmy, left, talks to human rights lawyer Amal Clooney before his verdict in a courtroom in Tora prison in Cairo Photo: Amr Nabil/AP