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#FreeAJStaff: Al Jazeera Reporter Sentenced in Absentia Decries Egypt’s Imprisonment of 3 Colleagues

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Protests are continuing across the globe calling for Egypt to release three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were convicted on Monday of “spreading false news” in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed by the government a “terrorist group.” The sentencing came down one day after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to meet with Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and herald the resumption of stalled U.S. military aid. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is holding at least 11 other journalists in prison, placing Egypt among the world’s worst repressors of media freedom. We are joined by Al Jazeera correspondent Sue Turton, who was among nine journalists sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison during the same trial. We also hear from PBS NewsHour chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner on how Fahmy saved her life.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Journalists are continuing protests across the globe over Egypt’s sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to between seven and 10 years in prison. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were convicted on Monday of, quote, “spreading false news” in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed by the government a “terrorist group.” On Tuesday, staffers at the BBC took part in a one-minute silent protest. James Harding is BBC’s news director.

JAMES HARDING: Well, I think there are two things. I think there’s a simple thing, which is to send a message to people in Egypt. You know, this is a country which, obviously, as we’ve been reporting on the BBC, on all news outlets, is going through an extraordinary set of changes. And this is an important principle, we think, for Egypt, but for people around the world, the principle of journalistic freedom. And we want to do that in a considered and measured way, and that’s why we chose an act of solidarity, a silent protest, a way of standing alongside those people, those journalists who have been imprisoned, but to try and raise a message. In addition to that, we’ve drafted a letter that we’re sending to President el-Sisi. It’s been signed by a host of news organizations, from NBC to Sky to ITN. And we’re going to be sending that, as well, which makes a more detailed case. But in this moment, it was for journalists to stand with our fellow journalists.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was James Harding, the BBC’s news director. Peter Greste used to work at the BBC. At Channel 4 News in Britain and other news outlets, journalists placed black tape across their mouths in solidarity with their jailed colleagues. Online, the hashtag #FreeAJStaff has been trending for days.

And the Al Jazeera reporters are not alone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is currently holding at least 11 other journalists in prison, placing Egypt among the world’s worst repressors of press freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Monday’s sentencing of Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed came down one day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Cairo with Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general who led the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi last July. The Obama administration partially suspended aid to Egypt but has avoided a full cutoff by refusing to deem Morsi’s ouster a “coup.” At a news conference in Cairo, Kerry said he expects a full resumption of U.S. military aid in the coming months, beginning with around $575 million already released in the last 10 days.

On Tuesday, President Sisi said he will not intervene in the sentencing of the journalists. While the three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail, another nine journalists were charged in absentia and sentenced to 10 years. One of those journalists joins us now.

Sue Turton is a correspondent at Al Jazeera who has covered Afghanistan, Libya, Syria extensively for the network. She previously worked at Channel 4 News in England. And she’s joining us from the Al Jazeera studios in Doha, Qatar.

Sue, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you respond to the sentencing in both the case of your three colleagues, who will now spend seven to 10 years in jail, unless there’s a pardon or a commutation, as well as your own in absentia?

SUE TURTON: I think all of the verdicts left us all here at Al Jazeera quite stunned. We dared to believe that the verdict would be not guilty, because we had sat and watched the court sessions over the past few months, and we’d seen absolutely no evidence that the prosecution had brought that proved in any way, shape or form the charges against us, these charges that we supposed aided and abetted the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian authorities have now deemed a terrorist organization.

Just to slightly take you one step back, that decision to deem them terrorists wasn’t made until December. A very basic point, I left Egypt in November. I had been covering the country since the coup last summer that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, like many international journalists. And I had been covering all sorts of different stories, including the protests and the politics, but I hadn’t reported anything differently to all the other international journalists. And the very fact that I had left the country before the Muslim Brotherhood was even deemed a terrorist organization makes it ridiculous that I should have been seen as aiding and abetting this group.

But just to move you back to my colleagues in prison, you know, there was nothing in the evidence that proved anyway that they had done anything other than be straightforward, balanced, fair reporters. So, the reaction, really, was one of shock and disbelief. And now, I suppose, it’s really building to anger, to be frank.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sue, you said you witnessed or heard some of the court sessions. And apparently some of the evidence had absolutely nothing to do with what the three journalists were charged with. It included family vacation photos and footage of news reports from other networks and on completely unrelated subjects. So could you comment on that?

SUE TURTON: They made a big thing when they went into the hotel suite that we’d kind of been using as a makeshift office because, months before, they had raided our bureau, so we’d had to move to a hotel. They made a big thing of showing—of leaking video of the arrest of my three colleagues. And they put ridiculous music to it—it was actually the soundtrack from Thor, this really dramatic music—with the release. And in this video, you see that they show pictures of the hard drives and the computers that were being used and a lighting stand and a tripod and a camera. And to them, you know, this is sort of showing the evidence that was found in this—what they deemed the Marriott cell, after the hotel we were staying in. And they used this evidence in court. And they basically just showed the hard drive that they had found in Peter Greste’s room. And it was ridiculous, to be frank. There were pictures from a bulletin from Sky News Arabia of a horse galloping around a paddock. I mean, you know, it would be funny if it wasn’t so serious that my colleagues are now incarcerated for years on end. There were pictures, as you say, of Peter Greste’s family on holiday. There were pictures of a documentary he made when he used to work for the BBC in Somalia, an award-winning documentary.

This is one of the reason—you mentioned earlier that there has been this vigil outside the BBC and many other media organizations in the last few days, because Peter is so respected as a brilliant journalist in—not just in the region that he usually covers, in East Africa, but he has been all over the world for a number of organizations. And everybody is aghast that they should have been accused of these things, let alone convicted. And I will put my hand on my heart and say the same for his other two cellmates, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, strong, balanced reporters that helped me enormously when I was trying to cover Cairo, to understand the complexities of the story in Egypt. And these guys are now convicted with the flimsiest of evidence brought into court.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Margaret Warner, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for PBS NewsHour. She worked with Mohamed Fahmy in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution. In 2011, Warner and a television crew were caught in the midst of a violent demonstration. She talked to Al Jazeera about how Fahmy saved their lives.

MARGARET WARNER: I first met Mohamed Fahmy about three days before the incident, when, through a local connection, he came to our editing suite in the hotel room and provided the voiceover for our Egyptian characters, whom we wanted translated into English. It was the afternoon after a mob had stormed the Israeli Embassy overnight, managed to penetrate to the upper floors, pull down the Israeli flag and hoist the Egyptian flag. And when we arrived back there, there were still young men out in front, but did not look particularly dangerous.

Our crew, our camera crew, went in for closer filming while I and the driver at the time and another young Egyptian producer with me waited in the van, so we could quickly get away. The driver abandoned the car for whatever reason. People were lying in front of the car and started to knock on the car. Just then, a mob approached across these five lanes, and I could see that our local producer and my cameraman and my producer were being pursued by this mob—and Mohamed Fahmy. And my driver had abandoned the car, so I leapt over the—you know, the middle of the seat, jumped into the van, as Mohamed Fahmy held onto the back railing and said, “Drive, drive.” And this mob in front of me—he said, “Just drive through them. I’m going to get you out of here.” That’s what happened. And for the next five or six minutes, he directed me down this side street and this side street and this side street, and we finally managed to get to a safe place. He absolutely saved our lives.

I’m no legal expert, but I can to you that Mohamed Fahmy struck me on both occasions as nothing more and nothing less than a professional journalist.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Margaret Warner, well known in the United States, PBS NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent, describing her experience in Egypt with one of the three jailed journalists, Mohamed Fahmy. I also wanted to turn to comments made by Peter Greste’s father in Australia after he heard of the ruling. This is Juris Greste.

JURIS GRESTE: This is a very dark time, not only for our family, but for journalism generally. We are devastated, shocked and dismayed at this finding. We are not usually a family of superlatives, but I have to say this morning my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are. Journalism is not a crime, or you should all be behind bars. It’s as simple as that. This man, our son Peter, is an award-winning journalist. He is not a criminal. He’s not a criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Peter Greste’s father, Juris Greste, speaking from Australia. The foreign minister of Australia, Julie Bishop, also spoke out against what happened in Egypt and the sentencing of their national, this also as the anchor of one of Britain’s main television news shows put tape over his mouth in protest of the sentencing by Egypt of the Al Jazeera reporters. This is Jon Snow on U.K.’s Channel 4.

JON SNOW: On the day that Egypt condemned three journalists to seven years in jail, journalists across the world are expressing their condemnation by taping up their mouths, as we are in our own newsroom.

AMY GOODMAN: For our radio listeners, we’re seeing the Channel 4 newsroom full of journalists with their mouths taped, holding signs that read “#FreeAJStaff.” As the broadcast ends, the program’s host, Jon Snow, also then puts tape over his own mouth. That silence was heard—or not heard—all over Britain as newsrooms went silent. Sue Turton, you yourself are British. Can you talk about your own background and what this kind of international support means and what a sentence in absentia means for you? You are not in jail, but you were also sentenced.

SUE TURTON: Well, I’ve been a TV reporter for 25 years, many of those in the British TV industry. In fact, I was at Channel 4 News for 12 years. But since then, I moved to Al Jazeera. And, you know, I joined as the Afghanistan correspondent, but I covered the Arab uprisings for the last few years. I was in Libya for the whole revolution. And I’ve been in and out of Syria over the course of a year, as well, but, you know, every beat, really—Beirut, Moscow, all over the world for Al Jazeera. And I said this before: I’ve been shot at, I’ve been shelled, I’ve been physically abused and attacked, and verbally, but I’ve never been accused of anything like this. And this is basically a conviction of terrorism that I now have hanging over my head.

Now, of course I’m not going to go back to Egypt. I would be in jail. But it’s more serious than just Egypt. The African Union welcomed Egypt back into the fold just a few weeks ago. They had frozen their membership for quite some time during the revolution and the coup. But that means that if I were to go into an African country, it would be beholden on them to pass me over to the Egyptian authorities, because this is—this is agreement. If somebody as serious as a convicted terrorist enters their country, that’s what they’re supposed to do. And there are places in the Middle East that I’ve been warned to stay well away from. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates all back Egypt, all very much financially backing the new government in Egypt. So it’s kind of frozen what was my kind of beat, if you like, the conflict zones, the war zones. Those areas, certainly, in Africa at the moment are still very much bubbling, and I would expect to be covering.

But the focus for me right now is just to try and keep this campaign going to try and build a crescendo. We’ve been so lucky to have so much solidarity, not just from the media outlets all over the world, but also many governments all over the world, leaders stepping up, saying, you know, this must not be allowed to happen. Even people like Mia Farrow, the actress, has come out calling for a travel boycott. People shouldn’t go on holiday to Egypt, she’s saying. So, we really are trying to keep that campaign, the momentum of that campaign going, and promising the guys in prison that we won’t look away for a second. We won’t let this campaign drop for a second until they are freed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sue, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the trial—called the trial, quote, “almost farcical” and said that the Al Jazeera journalists have become pawns in a conflict with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Could you say something about why you think Al Jazeera journalists, in particular, have been targeted by the Sisi regime?

SUE TURTON: Well, our sister channel, Al Jazeera Arabic, is the most-watched Arabic channel in the region, and it was still broadcasting, as was the other Egyptian Al Jazeera in Egypt. And the domestic audience only really sees domestic news, and that means they only really see coverage that backs the government. There is no breadth of opinion. They don’t get to talk to people who might not agree with the government anymore. So I certainly think that the Egyptian authorities wanted to shut Al Jazeera up. And the only reporters for Al Jazeera still on the ground were Al Jazeera English reporters. The Arabic reporters had pulled out, because it had become so difficult for them to operate. So, I think, in a way, we had just become an easy target. I don’t think they particularly wanted to target Al Jazeera English, but that’s what they did.

But I think it’s also very much on the record that Qatar and Egypt have really fallen out. Qatar did back the Muslim Brotherhood financially, very much backed President Mohamed Morsi when he was elected to power after the revolution, and had pinned their colors to the Muslim Brotherhood mast, I guess. But that doesn’t mean Al Jazeera has. It certainly doesn’t mean Al Jazeera English has. And we are—I think you’re right: We are pawns in this huge global clash at the moment. And there is almost a sense, I think, that the Egyptian government has taken revenge for the Qatari authorities backing the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re taking it out on us, which is ludicrous. The Committee to Protect Journalists have got it completely right, because we are just journalists going out there trying to tell a story and very much committed to trying to tell a story on all sides. You know, they tried to make out in court that we were backing this one group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Why would I back one group? I’ve, as I say, been a journalist for 25 years. I have no allegiance with any group. I just try and tell it as I see it and as I hear it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sue Turton, very quickly, before we conclude, could you say what possibility there is for a pardon for your colleagues who are now in prison in Egypt?

SUE TURTON: That’s been talked about a lot. A lot of people have asked that question. We did hear the president, President Sisi, just yesterday saying that he would not get involved in the judicial process, but I know that there is a lot of international pressure, a lot of it behind the scenes, now on Egypt to possibly consider a pardon. We’re also going through the legal ramifications of whether there could be an appeal. There’s also a system in the Egyptian legal system, a kind of a court that looks at the process of the legal decision that was made in the court a couple of days ago. And if there’s any holes in that process, if it’s seen that they didn’t follow the letter of the law either in the arrest or in the actual court proceedings, there is a chance there that they could throw the conviction out. It’s a big “if” at the moment, and we are talking to lawyers. We’re trying to take stock of what’s happened and work out what our next best move is to try and get the guys out of prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Sue Turton, we have only 30 seconds, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Sisi the day before the convictions. While there were words of protest from the U.S. government on all of your convictions, the fact is, the U.S. is releasing hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to Egypt as we speak. Your thoughts on this and what this means for your verdicts and sentencing?

SUE TURTON: When I heard that the U.S. administration had agreed to release that money, I thought they had had an assurance from the government that the verdict would be going towards not guilty. And I also got that sense when John Kerry released a statement straight after the verdict. It was an anguished statement. It called the verdict draconian and chilling and called for a pardon. And I have the sense that the Egyptian authorities almost pulled the rug from under the U.S. government’s feet, because when I was in D.C. a few months ago, I was talking to State Department, and they were very much saying they were very behind us or backing us, as they brought up our case every time they spoke to Egypt. And it was very suspicious, the fact that Kerry sort of agreed that they would release this money just before the verdict, and then the verdict came down as [guilty]. So I hope and pray they are doing everything they can now to speak to the Egyptian authorities, to the president, and say, “You can’t do this. You have to recognize you can’t behave this way towards journalists, if you want the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt to continue.”

AMY GOODMAN: Sue Turton, thanks so much for being with us, Al Jazeera correspondent, charged in absentia and sentenced to 10 years by an Egyptian court, along with a number of other Al Jazeera reporters. But three of the reporters—Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste—have been sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison. They sit in an Egyptian prison today.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re coming up on the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising here in New York. Transgender people have sued New York over their lack of access to Medicaid and therapy. Stay with us.

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