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2014-06-23

"Journalism in Egypt is a Crime": Global Outcry After 3 Al Jazeera Reporters Sentenced to 7-10 Years

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An Egyptian court has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to between seven and 10 years in prison on terrorism charges, including "spreading false news" in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed by the government a "terrorist group." Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed have been jailed since December in a case that’s stoked international outrage. The sentence came down one day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to meet with Egypt’s new president, the former army general Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Amnesty International decried the jail sentences as "a dark day for media freedom in Egypt," while Al Jazeera said the verdict defied "logic, sense, and any semblance of justice." We go to Cairo to speak with Mohamed Fahmy’s brother Adel Fahmy, as well as Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who warns: "What this ruling means is that in Egypt journalism is a crime."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: An Egyptian court has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to between seven and 10 years in prison. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were convicted on terrorism charges including "spreading false news" in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed by the government a "terrorist group." The three have been jailed since December in a case that’s stoked international outrage. The hashtag #FreeAlJazeeraStaff is trending worldwide.

The sentence came down one day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egypt’s new president, the army chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Peter Greste’s brother Mike Greste was in the Egyptian courtroom when the sentence came down.

MIKE GRESTE: Wrong verdict. It’s—I don’t—I don’t know how the judge came to that decision. I’d be very interested to hear his reasons for giving that verdict. It doesn’t make any sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International decried the jail sentences, saying it was, quote, "a dark day for media freedom in Egypt." The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, also condemned the sentencing.

JULIE BISHOP: Peter Greste is a well-respected Australian journalist. He was in Egypt to report on the political situation. He was not there to support the Muslim Brotherhood. We respect the outcome of the recent elections in Egypt, and we will now initiate contact at the highest levels in the new Egyptian government to see whether we can gain some kind of intervention from the new government and find out whether intervention is indeed possible at this stage. I have spoken at length with Peter Greste’s parents. They are considering their legal options, including appeal options. We do not know how long an appeal process would take. But in the meantime, we will provide whatever consular assistance we can to Mr. Greste and, of course, to his family.

We understand that Egypt has been through some very difficult times and there has been a great deal of turmoil in Egypt, but this kind of verdict does nothing to support Egypt’s claim to be on a transition to democracy, and the Australian government urges the new government of Egypt to reflect on what message is being sent to the world about the situation in Egypt. Freedom and freedom of the press is fundamental to a democracy. And we are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop condemning Egypt for sentencing three Al Jazeera journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed—to between seven and 10 years in prison.

We go directly to Cairo, Egypt, now, where we’re joined by Adel Fahmy. He’s the brother of journalist Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who was Al Jazeera’s acting Cairo bureau chief at the time of his arrest. And we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who was in the courtroom today, as well.

Adel Fahmy, can you respond to the verdict of the court?

ADEL FAHMY: Yes. So, that was an absolute shock for all of us. We totally expected the opposite. Leading up to this day, we had a politicians gave us reason to be optimistic, or at least cautiously optimistic. And then, the experience was extremely traumatic to all of us. I can’t even calm down my—I’m still trying to calm down my parents. We have to—we have to start now of the coming steps, but it’s very sad what the judicial system has given as a verdict. It’s a disgrace, and it shows that the judicial system—

AMY GOODMAN: I think we just lost Adel. We will try to get him back. Sharif, you were there with the families, with the packed courtroom. Tell us what happened today.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, what this ruling means is that in Egypt journalism is a crime. The court found these three journalists guilty, giving Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste seven years in prison, and Baher Mohamed, as well, and adding a three-year prison sentence onto Baher Mohamed for possessing an empty shell casing of a bullet, which he said was a souvenir, and so he has 10 years in prison.

It was a really difficult time in the court today when the verdicts were read out. The family members were weeping. Fellow colleagues, journalists, were weeping. Mohamed Fahmy was pulled away, had to be hauled away by the police in the court, as he was trying to shout to journalists and respond to this outrageous verdict. Peter Greste said nothing; he simply held up a closed fist in the air. And Baher Mohamed was shaking his head.

You know, this is—the little margin of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, that has been continually shrinking in Egypt, took a very heavy blow today. They are accused of—the prosecution has accused these three journalists of tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad by portraying false scenes, as Egypt undergoing a civil war, to help a terrorist organization, which is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated that. And the prosecution, throughout the trial, did not show a shred of evidence of anything that comes close to that. Some of the evidence it showed even included stuff that had nothing to do at all with Egypt, including footage from Peter Greste in Somalia and Kenya, you know, even shots of their parents and so forth. And so, essentially, the court put journalism itself on trial. Many of the journalists today could have faced these same charges, because they did nothing more than do their jobs. And Peter Greste himself was only in Egypt for a couple of weeks. And lawyers—defense lawyers throughout the trial have asked the prosecution and the judge whether simply airing the views of an opposing voice is a crime in Egypt, and this sentence has, you know, put freedom of the press really a large step back in the country.

And if you also—part of the prosecution’s case rested on this technical report by, you know, three experts that went through all of the footage that was seized in the arrest of these three journalists. And during the trial, these expert witnesses denied they had any authority to judge whether these journalists endangered national security, and that contradicted the initial claims made in—you know, to the prosecutor on which the entire case rests. So it’s a very, very weak, weak case. You know, the Amnesty International observer blasted this case and said it will have a very negative effect on freedom of the press in Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Mohamed Fahmy, from the cage in the courtroom, condemning the proceedings.

MOHAMED FAHMY: Today’s proceedings show that there is—it seems like all the witnesses have some amnesia or something, Alzheimer’s. There is a lot of discrepancies in the documents and what they are saying themselves. The prosecutor has a lot to answer for, for allowing the four engineers from the Maspero state TV to have exactly the same copy/paste testimony, that we have seen in our video.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mohamed Fahmy speaking from the cage. As the sentence was read, Mohamed Fahmy also yelled out, "Where is John Kerry?"—again, a reference to secretary of state’s surprise visit to Egypt just the day before, just this weekend. Adel Fahmy is back with us. The significance of Secretary of State Kerry talking about the renewal of all aid to—military aid to Egypt, as your brother and the other journalists have been convicted and sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison, Adel?

ADEL FAHMY: I think Egypt has to rethink how their [inaudible] in different parts of the world. I think everyone now is going to lobby—different governments are going to lobby together against this appalling verdict—and the U.S., as well, I’m sure. I heard that Mr. Kerry discussed this mistrial with President Sisi yesterday, but I don’t know how that—what resulted from that or if there was time for any corrective action to be taken. But now I think this case really requires a strong diplomatic intervention by all governments and to make a firm stand against this ridiculous justice system in Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Adel, could you tell us about Mohamed? He—tell us how he ended up in Egypt, his life as a journalist.

ADEL FAHMY: Yeah, Mohamed worked in several countries prior to returning to Egypt. Of course, he lived in Canada for a big portion of his life. Then he worked in Dubai for awhile with TV, in Al Hurra TV. Then he went—he worked with the Red Cross in Lebanon. And then he also worked in the L.A. Times covering the Iraq War and worked with the BBC and then CNN when the revolution was [inaudible] to be in Egypt, January 25 revolution, 2011. And after CNN, he joined Al Jazeera English only—and I emphasize on that—only since September 2013. So he was just only three months in his job. And—but that’s another point that we stressed in our defense, that, you know, he’s a professional journalist who was only sent to his job for three months and was [inaudible] very objectively and professionally. So—and he got arrested, of course, as you know, on December 29th.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Sharif, it is not only these three journalists, although they are in prison and, according to the court, will be for the next seven to 10 years, but a whole group of other Al Jazeera reporters have been sentenced to up to 10 years in absentia.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. The case named 20 defendants. There were five students who were charged in the case, which, you know, seemingly had no connection whatsoever to Al Jazeera. And the first time that the three journalists—Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed—ever saw them was in the defendants’ cage. Four of those students were sentenced to seven years in prison. One of them, Anas el-Beltagy, who’s actually the son of the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed el-Beltagy, was acquitted. Then a further 11 people were sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison. Al Jazeera has said nine of the 20 named in the case have a connection to the network. So there’s some people in the case that are—you know, they’re not all journalists. But one of the people named met with Mohamed Fahmy in the Marriott just for half an hour for tea. She’s a Dutch journalist, and she found out that she was, you know, on the charge sheet and had to be—had to hide in the Dutch Embassy and flee the country.

So, really just a haphazard list of charges. The prosecution, again, really provided no evidence that showed that these journalists had done anything other than very basic journalism. The prosecutor accused Al Jazeera of, quote-unquote, "forming a devilish pact," that Qatar formed a devilish pact to bring down governments in Syria and Yemen and Egypt. And Mohamed Fahmy himself, in the last court session before this verdict, held up George Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points, and said, "To say that journalists can bring down a state like Iraq brings shame on all the media martyrs that died covering that war," and Mohamed Fahmy himself covered that war, and he said it was George Bush that destroyed Iraq, not Al Jazeera.

So, this case is going to have reverberations, I think, around the world. We saw a heavy diplomatic presence in the courtroom today with ambassadors from Canada, from Australia, from the Netherlands and from Latvia there. Both the Canadian and Australian ambassadors said that none of the evidence provided in the trial—they didn’t understand how the judge came to this verdict. So, we’ll have to see what happens going forward. They do have the right to appeal, of course, in this case. President Sisi does have the right to pardon them or provide amnesty.

But again, as you mentioned, this came a day after John Kerry, the secretary of state, visited—for the first time, a high-level meeting between secretary of state and the newly inaugurated president—and he voiced what appeared to be strong U.S. support for Egypt, for this new government, saying that, you know, the aid will be brought back to its previous levels, that he was confident that 10 Apache helicopters would be delivered to Egypt soon. So—and then, you know, the next day we have this really abominable verdict come down. So, we’ll have to see what—how the State Department responds after that.

AMY GOODMAN: I was watching Sue Turton, who is one of the Al Jazeera reporters who’s been sentenced in absentia. She was in the Al Jazeera studios in Doha earlier today, right after the sentence, saying, while she was much more concerned about the jailed journalists, of course, that this means, as journalists, it’s very difficult for them to travel, because any countries that Egypt has agreements with could have her extradited, or the other journalists convicted in absentia, because she has been convicted in an Egyptian court. I also wanted to ask Adel Mohamed—rather, Adel Fahmy, about his Mohamed’s condition. He had dislocated his shoulder?

ADEL FAHMY: Yeah, he sustained this injury shortly before he was arrested back in December. And due to the negligence inside and the harsh condition and denying him to get an early diagnosis and treatment, it deteriorated substantially to become a permanent disability. So, as if this was not punishment enough, we get the verdict today. He has—his right arm, and it got reconfirmed with a recent second MRI last Tuesday to confirm that he will never have 100 percent functionality of his right arm again, [inaudible] of motion and considerable pain. So, even [inaudible] intervention, which he was trying to do right away, after his acquittal, can only be proved for things [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of countries speaking out and the kind of worldwide outrage that’s been expressed? Does it matter at all? We just heard the foreign minister of Australia, Julie Bishop. What role has Canada played in putting pressure on the Egyptian government? And what difference does it make when people speak out around the world? Does it make any difference for—for your brother Mohamed, for Peter, in prison?

ADEL FAHMY: Yes, it’s extremely important, in my opinion. The governments have to step up now and express how appalled they are by this, and Egypt will realize that they cannot defy the whole world. You know, this is—it’s already been—I mean, they’re very grateful for the journalists constantly covering this and keeping the story alive. And now it’s time for, you know, the diplomats to start getting into this, as well, and pressure has to continue.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us.

ADEL FAHMY: This is the only way we can get results.

AMY GOODMAN: Adel Fahmy, of course, we’ll continue to cover the case of Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste in prison in Egypt, as well as everything that’s happening there. Thanks so much to Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous, speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt.

When we come back, we’ll go to where Secretary of State John Kerry went after his surprise visit to Cairo, Egypt, and that’s to Iraq. We’ll be speaking with Patrick Cockburn. Stay with us.

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