CAIRO — A Cairo court sentenced three journalists from Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite news channel to prison Monday on charges of collaborating with “terrorists,” a move that Secretary of State John F. Kerry called “chilling and draconian.”
In a statement denouncing the sentences, Kerry called on Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to declare a “commitment to the essential role of civil society, a free press and the rule of law.” He also urged the Egyptian government to review all political sentences and verdicts from the past few years and to “consider all available remedies, including pardons.”
Judge Mohamed Nagy delivered the verdicts against the journalists and five students also charged in the case in a brief session at Cairo’s Tora prison complex Monday morning, after a months-long trial. Observers said prosecutors presented no evidence implicating the defendants in any terrorism-related activity. The trial prompted international criticism that Egypt is in a dangerous slide toward authoritarianism.
Police arrested Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, all employees of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English channel, on Dec. 29 on charges of aiding terrorists and threatening the country’s national security, prosecutors said.
Cries of astonishment and “God is great!” could be heard from the defendants as Nagy, wearing sunglasses, announced the decision. Fahmy, a dual Egyptian Canadian citizen, and Greste, an Australian national, were sentenced to seven years in prison. Mohamed, an Egyptian cameraman for the network, was given a 10-year sentence for possessing a bullet casing he had kept at his home as a souvenir.
During a news conference in Baghdad, Kerry said that the trial “flies in the face of the essential ingredients of a civil society” and that he had immediately called Egypt’s foreign minister to register what he called “our serious displeasure” and disappointment. Kerry, who arrived in Baghdad on Monday for talks on the Iraqi crisis, had visited Cairo a day earlier and raised U.S. concerns about the journalists’ case.
“It’s deeply disturbing to see in the midst of Egypt’s transition,” Kerry said. “It simply cannot stand if Egypt is going to be able to move forward in the way that Egypt needs.”
A senior U.S. official said Kerry warned Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry in their phone conversation that the verdicts make it harder for members of Congress to free up U.S. aid. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private phone call.
In Washington, officials struggled to explain the fraught relationship with Egypt and the tenuous balance between supporting the government with military assistance and expressing concern about what State Department spokesman Marie Harf called the “egregious” court decision.
“These things aren’t mutually exclusive,” Harf said. “We can, on the one hand, express our displeasure, express our concern about human rights, and also say, ‘But there is, at times, a shared interest to provide some assistance.’ It’s not black and white.”
The White House also denounced the verdicts, saying in a statement that the prosecution of the journalists “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom.”
“Perhaps most disturbing is that this verdict comes as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance,” the statement said. “These include the prosecution of peaceful protesters and critics of the government, and a series of summary death sentences in trials that fail to achieve even a semblance of due process.”
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry later defended the court’s decision, saying it “rejects any comment by a foreign party casting doubt on the judiciary’s independence and the fairness of its rulings.”
Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English sister channels emerged as the primary targets of Egypt’s crackdown on the news media after the military overthrew Islamist president and former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi last summer. Supporters of Egypt’s government have accused both networks of acting as mouthpieces for the Brotherhood, which cultivated ties with Qatar during its brief time in power.
Days before the journalists’ arrest last year, Egypt’s interim cabinet declared the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, a “terrorist organization.” But it has not provided evidence that the movement has been involved in a series of militant attacks.
“There is no justification whatsoever in the detention of our three colleagues for even one minute,” Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, said in a statement Monday. “To have sentenced them defies logic, sense and any semblance of justice.”
Held in a black metal cage inside the courtroom, the detainees chanted against the government and called the police “thugs.” Fahmy and Greste shook the bars of the cage, and prison guards could be seen roughly prying Fahmy from the enclosure to return him and the other defendants to their cells.
“We’re not going to give up the fight,” Greste’s brother, Andrew Greste, said outside the courtroom. Andrew Greste, a cotton farmer who flew to Egypt from Australia to attend the trial, was visibly shaking as he fielded questions from reporters. “It’s difficult to describe my disappointment at today’s verdict,” he said.
Egypt’s public prosecutor had charged the journalists with coordinating with the Muslim Brotherhood to doctor footage and portray Egypt as mired in a civil war. Attorneys for the defendants accused the court of bias after the judge did not grant the defense team access to the prosecution’s evidence. At one of the trial’s final sessions, technical witnesses for the prosecution who had reviewed the video evidence allegedly proving the journalists’ motives acknowledged that they did not know who had edited the footage or whether it actually harmed Egypt’s national security.
Nevertheless, the judge, who last week sentenced 14 Brotherhood leaders to death, sided with the prosecution and meted out the sentences in a matter of minutes Monday. Egyptian authorities have presided over a bloody, widespread crackdown on dissent in recent months, jailing tens of thousands of students, peaceful activists and journalists as threats to the country’s national security. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global media watchdog group, at least 14 journalists are being held in Egyptian prisons without charge.
“In Egypt today, anyone who dares to challenge the state’s narrative is considered a legitimate target,” Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, a London-based rights group, said in a statement. He described the journalists as “prisoners of conscience” and called for their immediate release.
On Monday, the Dutch and British governments summoned the Egyptian ambassadors in both countries over the sentencing. Two British journalists with Al Jazeera and a Dutch journalist who did not work for the network were sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison.
“The Australian government is deeply disappointed in the severity of the verdict,” Ralph King, Australia’s ambassador to Egypt, said outside the courtroom.
“This is an attack on journalism,” said Ahmed Abdel Nabi, a rights lawyer who monitored the trial. “And it’s a sign of what’s to come” for freedom of expression in Egypt, he said.
Anne Gearan in Baghdad and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.