In December of 2013, three journalists working for Al Jazeera were arrested and detained in Egypt. These men, Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, were charged with spreading false news, aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and working without a permit. Held in Egypt’s Tora Prison, which has housed some of Egypt’s most infamous criminals, they awaited their trial for 177 days.
Eventually, Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed had their day in court. However, it was hardly the fair hearing the world was waiting for.
Rather, the prosecution, using ‘evidence‘ such as holiday photos from years back, doctored photos and a music video of Gotye (yes the pop star), won their case against the journalists. The court then sentenced the three men to 7-10 years behind bars. Journalists Fahmy and Greste were given 7 year sentences, charges of which included colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. Mohamed was sentenced to another 3 years because during the protest he picked up a spent bullet shell. According to the Egyptian Court this put him in ‘possession of ammunition.’
Two more Al Jazeera journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, were tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in Egyptian prison. For these journalists, having a charge this serious levied against them could strain their careers, as numerous countries around the world will not grant visas to ‘criminals’. However, the Doha office of Al Jazeera have vowed to support their reporters regardless.
AJE’s managing director, Al Anstey said in a statement that, “Today three colleagues and friends were sentenced, and will continue behind bars for doing a brilliant job of being great journalists. ‘Guilty’ of covering stories with great skill and integrity. ‘Guilty’ of defending people’s right to know what is going on in their world.” Al Anstey went on to promise that, “We will continue with resolve and determination until Baher, Peter, and Mohamed are free and safely reunited with their families.”
The Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has since said that he refuses to ‘interfere’ with the guilty verdict, out of respect to the courts. However, Sisi, the former head of the Egyptian military, has motives that have been called into question.
The former Egyptian President, Morsi, was thrown out of office when riots and clashes broke out over discontent with his policies. While these clashes were a legitimate airing of grievances, the military crackdown on Morsi supporters was incredibly violent. Because Sisi commanded these troops, and journalists covered this deadly repression, it’s hardly farfetched to wonder if Sisi has proper motivation for keeping the AJE staff behind bars.
In a question and answer Twitter session with convicted journalist Sue Turton, she repeated these allegations, saying, “Many believe Sisi already interfered with this trial and that’s why [there’s a] guilty verdict in spite of evidence.”
Fahmy is a Canadian-Egyptian dual citizen, and Greste is an Australian citizen, yet only light condemnation has been given out by their respective countries. Canada expressed ‘disappointment’ in the verdict and stated they’d continue working with consular service to get Fahmy both proper medical care and information. Meanwhile in Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott called it a “very harsh sentence” and also promised to keep working with the Egyptian government to set Peter Greste, and his colleagues, free.
However, heavy condemnation has come from a number of press groups and human rights activists. Human Rights Watch laid out some of the harshest criticism saying of Egypt, “The new constitution’s guarantees of free expression are not worth the paper they are written on.”
Former UN attorneys have noted that using international laws, which Egypt is beholden to, might be the best route to go down to free the journalists. However, it’s yet to be seen if Canada or Australia are willing to do this. Further calls have demanded President Sisi to overturn the sentence, although he claims this is impossible until after all their appeals are expended. So for now the world watches and waits, as the rights of these three journalists recede behind their cell walls.