Home / News / World /  Al-Jazeera journalists get seven years amid Egypt freedom fears

Cairo: An Egyptian court sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists, including an award-winning Australian reporter, to at least seven years in jail, in a case that’s sparked concerns officials are using national security as a pretext to curb freedoms.

Authorities had accused 20 people, including four foreigners, of terrorism-related activities in support of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, arguing they sullied Egypt’s image and undermined national security.

Australian Peter Greste and Al-Jazeera English’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy each received seven years in prison, while Baher Mohamed received an additional three years on a weapons possession charge.

“It’s an unbelievable result. It’s definitely not what I was expecting," Greste’s brother, Andrew Greste, said in a phone interview in Cairo after Cairo criminal court judge Mohamed Shahata read out the verdict. “It’s going to take us a little while to regroup and weigh our options and figure out how to continue the fight." Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said she was “appalled".

The verdicts were handed down a day after US secretary of state John Kerry met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo. During his visit he urged Egypt to free jailed journalists and ensure freedoms, and promised to deliver more military aid in a bid to patch rifts that have developed between the allies since the Egyptian military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July.

Detained in December

The defendants were detained in December, part of the crackdown on the Brotherhood that followed Mursi’s overthrow. Qatar’s rulers, who finance Al-Jazeera, had supported Mursi during his year-long tenure, and the network is perceived in Egypt as biased toward the Brotherhood, which fielded him for the presidency.

The court sentenced 11 more people in absentia to 10 years in prison and two were acquitted.

The crackdown on the Brotherhood under then-defence minister El-Sisi raised concerns about freedoms and the military-backed government’s commitment to democracy. El-Sisi used security as a key platform during his run for the office.

“It’s a black day for press freedom in Egypt," Ahmed Ezzat, director of the legal unit at the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, said by phone. Even under Hosni Mubarak, the autocratic leader deposed in 2011, “there were some lines the authorities wouldn’t cross when it came to freedom of journalists. Now, it’s much worse."

‘Dire’ rights crisis

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop, in comments aired on Sky News, said: “We are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world."

Al-Jazeera said on its website that the verdict “defies logic, sense and any semblance of justice".

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is “completely appalled", and the British government will continue to press the Egyptian government on reports that defence attorneys weren’t given full access to prosecution evidence, his spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters in London.

Since Mursi’s ouster, hundreds of his supporters have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more, including the deposed president, arrested on charges including murder and inciting violence.

El-Sisi took office in the midst of a human rights crisis as dire as in any period in the country’s modern history, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a 10 June joint statement.

Bias alleged

Egyptian authorities have branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, marginalizing what had been the main opposition movement under Mubarak. Al-Jazeera, which has been accused of bias at one point or another by most Arab governments, has been a repeated target since Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.

The satellite network’s coverage of the dispersal of pro-Mursi encampments in Cairo last year that left hundreds dead cemented a perception in Egypt that it sided with the Brotherhood.

Its Qatari government sponsors had injected billions of dollars in aid and grants to help prop up Egypt’s moribund economy during Mursi’s first and only year in office. His ouster left a rift between the two nations and activists say Al- Jazeera’s journalists were dragged into the fray as pawns.

“The trial clearly sends a message to foreign, as well as local, journalists covering Egypt that they must be biased toward to the government or they can be persecuted and easily have fabricated charges filed against them," Ezzat, the activist, said. Bloomberg

With assistance from Ahmed Khalil El-Sayed in Cairo and Brett Foley in Melbourne.

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