The sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to lengthy prison terms on nonexistent evidence shows how paranoid and degraded the Egyptian regime has become.
- By Bel TrewBel Trew is broadcast and print journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @beltrew.
CAIRO — Through the tight mesh of a Cairo courtroom cage, Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste silently raised a single fist the moment the Egyptian judge read out the verdict sentencing him to prison. Greste and two of his Al Jazeera colleagues were found guilty of assisting a terrorist organization and fabricating news to harm the Egyptian state.
Greste, a 49-year-old Australian correspondent who had been reporting in Egypt for only 10 days before he was arrested, now faces the next seven years in prison. The network’s local bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, who joined Al Jazeera just a few months prior to his arrest, also received a seven-year sentence. Local producer Baher Mohamed was given a heftier punishment of 10 years. The extra three years was because he was also convicted of possession of an unlicensed weapon — a single bullet.
"They will pay for this," shouted Fahmy, clad in the white prison uniform, as the guards dragged the sentenced back to their cells.
The trial of the Al Jazeera journalists, in which a total of 20 people were accused, has become a case study in all that is wrong with the Egyptian judicial system. The evidence was nonexistent, the defendants included people from different occupations and backgrounds with no clear link to each other, and the judicial process was haphazard at best.
The timing of the verdict also managed to embarrass Secretary of State John Kerry, who had made surprise visit to Cairo the day before. In what seemed to be an effort to mend ties with the new Egyptian government, Kerry announced the release of $575 million in previously frozen military aid, and promised that Apache helicopters would soon be provided to the Egyptian military. The secretary of state also spoke of the need for a "free press … and due process in democracy" — appeals that, at least in the case of the Al Jazeera journalists, were ignored.
Since the arrest of Greste and Fahmy at Cairo’s upscale Marriott Hotel on Dec. 29, the six-month ordeal has shown just how far Egypt is willing to go to muzzle those who might dissent from its preferred narrative.
Greste and Fahmy’s arrest was taped by police and then broadcasted by Tahrir TV, a local Egyptian network, to the ominous musical score of the film "Thor: The Dark World." The 22-minute clip painted the makeshift hotel room studio as a crime scene: The cameraman repeatedly zoomed into laptops, cables, mobile phones, and hard drives. A stunned Fahmy, his arm in a sling, and a silent Peter Greste were interrogated about their makeshift office and how they were paid.
Baher Mohamed was later arrested from his home in a police raid during which officers shot his dog and his pregnant wife wasn’t given time to cover herself.
The absurdities continued in the courtroom. The grand unveiling of the "evidence" included a Sky News Arabia documentary on animal welfare, a BBC report on Somalia, family photographs, incomprehensible audio recordings, and a pop song. The prosecutors said the random collection of videos and photos proved that the accused were guilty of doctoring news stories and involvement in a terrorist group’s activities.
"You can’t possibly imagine that any of those videos alone or together could represent a threat to national unity as the charges against them say," said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who attended every session of the trial. Neither did it prove there was any connection between the defendants and the outlawed Brotherhood, he added.
Nor was it clear that the Egyptian police knew who, exactly, they were detaining. In the arresting officers’ testimonies in the courtroom, they confused Al Jazeera English, which employs the three journalists, with Al Jazeera’s banned local channel Mubasher Misr, which has a strong pro-Brotherhood editorial line.
The people charged in the trial were not only journalists, and it remained unclear to even the defendants how they were all related to each other. Some of the students were activists who had opposed last summer’s military coup, while another was the head of an Islamic charity. Another reporter charged in the case had no connection to Al Jazeera: Dutch journalist Rena Netjes was seemingly indicted because she had coffee with Fahmy at the Marriott a few weeks before the arrests; she was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison.
Only two defendants were acquitted: Anas el-Beltagy, the son of a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, and Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, a Cairo-based student.
In the brief moments of recess during the course of the trial, the Al Jazeera journalists shouted descriptions of life in Egyptian jail to the reporters covering their case.
Even after an "upgrade" in Tora’s sprawling prison complex, Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed are only allowed one hour of sunlight a day — except on Fridays, when they are often kept caged in their cramped cell all day. Fahmy, meanwhile, now has a permanent disability after he was refused medical treatment for a broken shoulder and was made to sleep on a bare concrete floor for at least a month.
The Egyptian government has arrested over 40,000 people, according to the independent monitoring group WikiThawra, and sent thousands to trial since last summer’s military coup. Journalists haven’t been immune from this crackdown: Egypt was the third-deadliest country for journalists and among the top jailers of journalists in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). More than 65 journalists have been detained in Egypt since the coup, and 14 remain behind bars.
Once detained, journalists sometimes have disappeared down the rabbit hole of the Egyptian judicial system. Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah el-Shamy was arrested while covering the violent dispersals of pro-Morsi sit-ins last August, and held for nearly a year despite not being formally charged. He was recently released from the maximum security unit of Tora prison for health reasons after nearly dying from a five-month hunger strike.
Meanwhile, Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, who works with international agency Demotix, has also been held for almost a year without charge. In the last court session to determine whether Abou Zeid’s detention should be extended, the judge didn’t bother to show up.
The effect has been an unprecedented level of self-censorship by both the public and private media. "You can see many TV shows, awkwardly trying to stop their interviewees going too far in criticizing the army and the government," Lotfy said. It was, he added, the worst press environment he had monitored in the last 30 years.
Such pressure had caused independent voices to drop from the airwaves. Popular comic Bassem Youssef, who had been interrogated for his stinging satirical skits, cancelled his show this month, citing concerns for the safety of his family. Opposition talk show host Reem Maged, whose show Baladna bel Masry boasted millions of viewers, took herself off air in the aftermath of July’s coup.
The Egyptian judiciary’s targeting of Al Jazeera employees likely has more to do with geopolitics than the reporting done by Fahmy and Greste. The network is funded by the Qatari government, a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and a nemesis to the government in Cairo.
After former President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, Cairo allied itself with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, which provided Egypt with billions of dollars in fresh aid in an attempt to bolster the new military-backed government. Qatar’s media empire, however, continued to oppose the new regime: Al Jazeera’s Arabic language channel’s editorial stance strongly supported the Brotherhood. The network even paid for Islamist opposition leaders to live in luxury hotels in Doha after they had been exiled from Cairo.
For the devastated families of those sentenced to prison gathered outside the Cairo courtroom, however, such global political games mean little.
"We had hope in the Egyptian judicial system, now we no longer have hope." Fahmy’s brother Adel said, as his mother Wafaa, who was in tears, leaned against him. "They paid the final price."