CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to three years in prison on charges of broadcasting without a license, in a ruling that has highlighted Egypt’s harsh treatment of the media.
The verdicts on Saturday came after Egypt’s highest appeals court granted the reporters a retrial earlier this year. The journalists — Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste — were first convicted of aiding a terrorist organization in April 2014. The court on Saturday sentenced Greste in absentia after authorities deported him to Australia in February.
Their plight has become a focal point in the struggle over press freedoms in Egypt, “one of the riskiest places to be a journalist,” according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. That group says at least 18 journalists are behind bars in Egypt.
One photojournalist, Mahmoud Abou Zeid, has been held for more than two years without any charges — Egypt’s maximum legal limit for pretrial detention. Amnesty International says Abou Zeid is a prisoner of conscience.
“This is the current state of press freedom in Egypt,” said the photojournalist’s attorney, Ahmed Abdel Nabi.
In rendering his verdicts Saturday, Judge Hassan Farid said the Al Jazeera journalists had not officially registered as members of the press, used unlicensed equipment and broadcast false material that was “harmful to Egypt.”
A court-appointed technical committee reported in the trial that it found no evidence that the journalists had manipulated footage. And the body that the judge said the journalists should have registered with, Egypt’s Press Syndicate, only accepts members of print media. Al Jazeera is a satellite television network.
“If this was an independent court, there would have been a full acquittal,” Amal Clooney, a human rights attorney and defense lawyer for Fahmy, said outside the courtroom Saturday. “This sets a dangerous precedent for journalists being imprisoned in Egypt.”
Rights groups have slammed Egypt’s judiciary for what they say are “sham trials” and harsh sentences against political dissidents, including journalists. Amnesty International called Saturday’s verdicts an “affront to justice that sound the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt.”
“The Egyptian authorities are relentlessly cracking down on independent and critical media across the country to silence dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director.
Egypt clamped down on freedom of the press after a military coup ousted Muslim Brotherhood leader and Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Officials then accused the Al Jazeera satellite network, which is owned by Qatar, a Brotherhood ally, of backing the Islamists against the state. While Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language channel openly supported the Brotherhood, the convicted journalists worked for the English-language network, which is widely viewed as more objective.
Police detained the three journalists in December 2013, later broadcasting Fahmy and Greste’s arrests on Egyptian television to the soundtrack from the Hollywood superhero film “Thor: The Dark World.”
All three journalists have already spent more than a year in prison.
On Saturday, Fahmy’s wife, Marwa Omara, cried out as the judge read the guilty verdicts in court. “This is wrong!” she said, breaking down into tears.
Fahmy and Greste were both sentenced to three years in a maximum-security prison, while Mohamed was sentenced to an additional six months of hard labor because police found a bullet in his home at the time of his arrest.
Fahmy and Mohamed, who has three young children, were taken into custody after the verdicts on Saturday.
In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, Mohamed said he was “enjoying limited freedom” while out on bail. “But one thing I learned in prison is to lower your expectations.”
Al Jazeera responded to the judge’s ruling Saturday by calling it a “dark day for Egypt’s judiciary.”
“There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organizations,” Al Jazeera Media Network’s acting director, Mostefa Souag, said in a statement Saturday. “Baher, Peter and Mohamed have been sentenced despite the fact that not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them.”
Clooney said she would be meeting with Egyptian officials to lobby for the deportation of Fahmy, who is a Canadian citizen. Egyptian law allows foreign nationals convicted of crimes in Egypt to be deported to their home countries. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi issued an order to deport Greste.
“Shocked. Outraged. Angry. Upset,” Greste tweeted following the verdicts Saturday. “None of them convey how I feel right now.”