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As Al Jazeera Journalists Are Jailed for 3 Years in Egypt, Will U.S. Stop “Cozying Up” to Regime?

StoryAugust 31, 2015
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In Egypt, Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste were sentenced over the weekend to three years in jail for “spreading false news” that purportedly harmed Egypt following the 2013 military coup. Fahmy and Mohamed were taken into custody on Saturday. Greste remains free in Australia. The three had already spent more than a year in prison before being released on bail earlier this year. We speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo and with Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The U.S. should stop cozying up to General—now President—Sisi,” Roth says. “He is presiding over the worst crackdown in modern Egypt history.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We head to Cairo, Egypt, where Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste were sentenced over the weekend to three years in jail for, quote, “spreading false news” that harmed Egypt following the 2013 military coup. That’s what they were convicted of. Fahmy’s wife, Marwa Omara, broke down in tears as the sentence was announced on Saturday.

MARWA OMARA: It was extremely unjust and was extremely unfair. And what happened with Mohamed shows how much this case is political. And it’s so unfair what’s happening to him. … We got married, and I didn’t even enjoy our marriage with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were taken back into custody. The third journalist, Peter Greste, spoke out against the ruling from Australia, where he was deported to.

PETER GRESTE: The fact is that we did nothing wrong, that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, that these guys are innocent men, and innocent men are in prison. That’s what this is about. Never mind the sentences. One day in prison would be unjust.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who represents Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, has called on President el-Sisi to pardon the men. The three were initially arrested as part of a crackdown on Al Jazeera following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, sentenced last June to between seven and 10 years in prison, a ruling condemned around the world. Peter Greste was released in February, deported home to Australia. Shortly afterwards, following more than 400 days behind bars, Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were also freed on bail. The case has been widely condemned. Fahmy and Mohamed were led away to begin their sentences after Saturday’s verdict. Greste was tried in absentia.

To find out more, we go to Egypt, to Cairo, by Democracy Now! video stream to be joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

Sharif, can you talk about the response right now in Egypt and the significance of these sentences?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, it’s a really stunning verdict. Many people were expecting that the journalists would be—receive some kind of sentence that would be time served or a suspended sentence, especially given that Egyptian officials had repeatedly signaled that they viewed the trial as a nuisance, that it brought unwanted scrutiny of the Egyptian government. Sisi himself has said several times in the past that he would have deported the journalists rather than try them, and he wished the case had never—the prosecution had never been brought.

And nevertheless, in a really heartbreaking and shocking scene, we saw the three journalists yesterday sentenced to three years in prison. They were hauled away to jail. The judge said in his verdict that they were not journalists because they lacked the necessary credentials. He said they were using unlicensed equipment and broadcasting false news that harmed Egypt’s national security. This last accusation is especially shocking, given that during the trial the judge appointed a technical committee to look at the footage, and the head of that committee testified that none of the video evidence, the footage, had been fabricated. And nevertheless the judge included that in his ruling.

So, you know, this is the latest twist in this long ordeal that had began in December 2013 for these journalists, and we’ll have to wait and see what will happen next. As you mentioned, Canada has put an official request for deportation for Mohamed Fahmy. They’ve also called for a presidential pardon from Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The president can—President Sisi can pardon them at any point. He does not have to wait until the end of the judicial proceedings. He’s pardoned people in the past. And that’s what—that would be the best-case scenario in this respect. Another one would be the deportation of Mohamed Fahmy, but that would leave Baher Mohamed behind bars. Baher Mohamed got an extra six months in prison and a 5,000-pound fine for possessing a single spent bullet casing.

And so, this was just the latest verdict in, you know, part of a broader crackdown that we’ve seen in Egypt against the press. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently did a survey, found that 18 or now over 20 journalists are behind bars. That’s the highest number since the CPJ has been keeping records in 1990 for Egypt.



AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I wanted to play the comment of Amal Clooney, Mohamed Fahmy’s attorney, denouncing the verdict.

AMAL CLOONEY: I think today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt. It sends the message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news. And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Amal Clooney, Mohamed Fahmy’s lawyer. We’re also joined by Ken Roth. Is there anything the United States can do, considering how many billions of dollars it gives to Egypt?

KENNETH ROTH: Yes, the U.S. should stop cozying up to General—now President—Sisi. He is presiding over the worst crackdown in modern Egypt history, much worse than anything that happened under Mubarak. As your colleague noted, there are 22 journalists in prison right now. There are 40,000 political prisoners. The U.S., nonetheless, is just opening the spigots for military aid. It’s selling equipment. It’s sending the message that we’ll live with this dictator because he’s pro-American, pro-Western. That is a disastrous message for the Egyptian people.

AMY GOODMAN: Should the U.S. cut off aid?

KENNETH ROTH: Absolutely. It should never have resumed the aid. It resumed the aid because, ostensibly, Egypt is on a transition to democracy. But I think John Kerry is the only person in the world who sees that transition.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Roth, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Human Rights Watch. And, Sharif, thanks for joining us from Cairo, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Egypt.

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