Factbox: Egypt Court Jails Jazeera Journalists

On Monday, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced eighteen people in the Al Jazeera trial to prison sentences ranging from seven to ten years. Only two of the defendants were acquitted.

Who are the defendants and how were they sentenced?

The Public Prosecutor referred twenty defendants, including four foreigners, to trial before a criminal court. Seven defendants who were in custody were sentenced from seven to ten years in prison, eleven were sentenced in absentia, and just two were acquitted. According to Al Jazeera, only nine of the twenty defendants work for the network.

Three Al Jazeera journalists in custody:
Peter Greste: Accused of spreading false information and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, Greste was sentenced to the maximum sentence of seven years
Mohamed Fahmy: Accused of spreading false information and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, Fahmy was sentenced to seven years. The maximum sentence for Fahmy, as an Egyptian national was fifteen years.
Baher Mohamed: Accused of spreading false information and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, was sentenced to seven years. The judge added another three years to his sentence for possession of ammuniotion. Al Jazeera reported that Mohamed was in possession of a spent bullet casing that he had found on the ground during a protest. As a result he was also fined EGP5,000.

Four other defendants in custody:
Four other defendants sentenced to seven years in person

Six Al Jazeera journalists sentenced in absentia
British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane sentenced each to ten years in prison
Includes four other Al Jazeera staff members

Five other defendants tried in absentia, given ten years prison
Includes Rena Netjes, a Dutch journalist who has never worked for Al Jazeera.

Two defendants acquitted
Two Egyptian defendants acquitted- Anas Mohamed al-Beltagy (son of Mohamed al-Beltagy) and Ahmed Abdel Hamid Abdel Aziz. They are both university students, and not journalists.

What were they charged with?  

According to a statement from the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the Egyptian defendants were charged with joining a terrorist group (referring to the Muslim Brotherhood), “which aims to obstruct the law and prevent state institutions from carrying out their work, in addition to transgressing against the personal freedoms of citizens, harming national unity and the security of the society, and utilizing terrorist methods to achieve its goals.” The statement also said that the foreign defendants were charged with assisting the Egyptian defendants with the above crimes by providing them with funds, information, and equipment, and knowledge of intentions. They were also charged with possession of unlicensed communication, recording, broadcasting, and transmission equipment  Additionally, Ahram Online reported that the defendants were charged with spreading false news meant to damage Egypt’s security, falsely portraying Egypt as being in a state of “civil war,” and assisting or joining the banned Muslim Brotherhood.  

One of the defense lawyers, Shaaban Saeed, said there was no respect for due process during the trial. “We were expecting innocence but there is no justice in this country. Politics is what judges,” Saeed said.

In a comment earlier this month, Fahmy’s lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr stated, “This is not a trial of these defendants alone – this is a trial of all journalists.”

The journalists are expected to appeal the court’s verdict, however the process could take months. A judicial source told Reuters that a pardon is still possible. All defendants sentenced in absentia are granted an automatic retrial, according to Egyptian law.

After the verdict was issued, police began to clear the prison entrance.

About the Judge

One of the three judges presiding over the case was Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata, of the Fifth Circuit Gaza Criminal Court. Shehata is presiding over several other high profile cases among them the ‘Raba’a control room trial,’ in which Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and fifty others are facing charges of accused of orchestrating violence in the wake of the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in in Raba’a. Shehata was assigned to the specially created ‘Terrorism Circuits,’ specialized courts handling so-called terrorism cases. A few days ago, he sentenced Badie, and several other Brotherhood leaders, among them Mohamed al-Beltagy and Essam al-Erian to death. They were found guilty of killing ten and injuring twenty others during clashes in Giza last July

On Monday, according to the New York Times, Shehata, while wearing sunglasses, led a panel of three judges and announced the court’s verdict and sentences without explanation. He was also an hour and a half late to the session to announce the verdict.

During an earlier session in May, the defendants’ lawyers complained when the prosecution refused to provide the defense with copies of the evidence against their clients unless the defense paid $170,000. The defense lawyers addressed the issue in court, saying that they could not represent the defendants without being given the opportunity to review the evidence. Shehata responded, telling the defense, “It’s you who didn’t perform your duty. The prosecutions deputy told you it would cost this much, and you said ‘I’m not going to pay.’”

Fahmy, also in May, attempted during the trial, after being allowed to leave the defendant’s cage, to explain to Shehata that the journalists had been doing their jobs and did not break any laws.

International response to the verdicts

The UK announced that it would summon the Egyptian ambassador over the “unacceptable” sentences handed down to the journalists. “I am appalled by the guilty verdicts handed down today against Egyptian and international journalists in Egypt,” UK Foreign Minister William Hague said in a statement released after Monday’s verdict. Hague said he would continue to urge Egyptian authorities to review the case.

The Netherlands also summoned the Egyptian ambassador in response to the sentences on Monday. Dutch journalist Rina Netjes was sentenced to ten years in jail in what Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmerman called an unfair trial. So far Britain and the Netherlands are the only countries that have summoned Egypt ambassadors in response to the trial’s verdict.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Monday that the Australian government is appalled and “shocked” by the verdict against the Al Jazeera journalists. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott also said Monday that he told Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that Greste is innocent of charges that he supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Abbot had said before the verdict, “I think he [Sisi] understands this would be a PR coup for the new government if Peter Greste is not dealt with severely.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry called Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Monday, according to Reuters, to express “serious displeasure” with the Al Jazeera trial’s verdict. In a statement, he called the conviction “chilling” and “draconian,” and stated that the trial “lacked many fundamental norms of due process.” Referencing his meeting with President al-Sisi on Sunday, Kerry said, “Injustices like these simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward in the way that President Sisi and Foreign Minister Shoukry told me just yesterday that they aspire to see their country advance.” Kerry also called on Egypt to review all political sentences and verdicts.

Additionally, a statement by the White House Press Secretary called on the Egyptian government to “pardon these individuals or commute their sentences so they can be released immediately, and grant clemency for all politically motivated sentences – starting with the other defendants in this trial.”

Amnesty International released a statement condemning the sentencing of the three Al Jazeera English journalists. “This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. An Amnesty International trial observer called the trial a sham, saying that the prosecution failed to produce evidence that linked the defendants to the charges.

Al Jazeera English’s managing director Al Anstey said that the verdict defied “logic, sense, and any semblance of justice.”

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt took to Twitter to give his response:

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement saying, “Egypt cannot be allowed to normalize its international relationships so long as it continues to jail journalists.” It described the trial as “farcical,” adding that “The clearly politicized nature of the prosecution has also sent a chill through the Cairo press corps.”

Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that the verdicts are a “miscarriage of justice.” “Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement expressing concern over the verdicts. “Proceeding  that clearly appear not to meet basic fair trial standards, particularly those resulting in the imposition of the death penalty, are likely to undermine prospects for long-term stability,” he said in his statement.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement, she was “shocked” by the verdicts, also commenting on a verdict issued earlier upholding a death sentence for over 180 Brotherhood supporters. “I believe these mass trials and death penalty convictions are obscene, and a complete travesty of justice,” she said.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “The Egyptian foreign ministry strongly rejects any comment from a foreign party that casts doubt on the independence of the Egyptian judiciary and the justice of its verdicts.”  Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry has ordered Egyptian embassies to proactively request meetings with officials in the country in which they are based, Ahram Online reported

Image: Photo: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed (L-R) listen to the ruling at a court in Cairo June 23, 2014. (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)