The conviction today of three Al Jazeera English journalists accused of “falsifying news” and belonging to or assisting the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt is a ferocious attack on media freedom, said Amnesty International.
The three journalists – Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, all considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience – were sentenced to seven years in jail. Baher Mohamed received a further three years on a separate charge of possessing a bullet shell. They have been detained since 29 December 2013.
“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,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“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.”
Out of six others on trial alongside the Al Jazeera journalists, two were acquitted and four were sentenced to seven years.
The court also sentenced a number of other journalists to 10-year sentences in absentia, including British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane and the Dutch journalist Rena Netjes.
An Amnesty International trial observer recorded several irregularities and examples of complete ineptitude during the proceedings. In 12 court sessions, the prosecution failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence linking the journalists to a terrorism organization or proving they had “falsified” news footage.
“The trial was a complete sham. Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice,” said Philip Luther.
Prosecutors obstructed the defendants’ right to review and challenge the evidence presented against them. The prosecution also appeared unprepared and disorganized, often presenting irrelevant evidence.
Key witnesses for the prosecution also appeared to contradict their own written testimony. Technical experts admitted on cross-examination that they were unable to confirm whether Al Jazeera journalists had doctored images or carried unauthorized equipment.
“The verdict provides further evidence that Egyptian authorities will stop at nothing in the ruthless campaign to crush anyone who challenges the official narrative, regardless of how questionable the evidence against them is,” said Philip Luther.
It’s not just journalists who are at risk. Thousands have been locked up over the past year as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent, with mass death sentences handed down to supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi.
“The Egyptian judiciary has proved time and time again that it is either unwilling or incapable of conducting an impartial and fair trial when it comes to those perceived to support the former president. Instead of locking up journalists and others perceived to pose a threat, the authorities should focus their efforts on conducting credible investigations into abuses by the security forces,” said Philip Luther.
Twenty people were tried in the case, 11 in absentia. Those in court included five Egyptian students arrested on 31 December 2013 in Cairo and Nasr City. Nine of the defendants are Al Jazeera staff, according to the network. Dutch journalist Rena Netjes does not work for Al Jazeera and left Egypt after she discovered she would face trial. The remainder are Egyptians.