The Al Jazeera Trial: The Verdict, Reactions, and Next Steps

On Saturday, August 29, Egypt’s Cairo Criminal Court sentenced journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and Peter Greste to three years in prison, in the latest development in the Al Jazeera trial.

The Trial

Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed were arrested in December 2013 and accused of belonging to a terrorist organization (a reference to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood), providing it with information and recordings, and publishing false news that could “disrupt the general peace” and harm Egypt.

They remained in custody following their arrest until the first trial in June 2014, when Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison. Mohamed was given an extra three years on top of the seven year sentence for possessing a use bullet casing at the time of his arrest. Following an appeal in January of this year, the journalists were granted a retrial. Egypt’s Court of Cassation said the judge had failed to prove a connection between the journalist and the Brotherhood during the first trial and cited legal irregularities, including a failure to investigate claims that the defendants produced testimony under duress.

Greste was deported to Australia in February after an order issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, while Fahmy and Mohamed were released on bail in February at the start of the retrial. Following the verdict, Fahmy and Mohamed were immediately taken into custody and taken to Tora prison.  

In January 2014, university students Sohaib Saad, Khaled Abdel Raouf, and Shadi Abdel Hamid were arrested and later added to the list of defendants in the trial alongside Fahmy, Greste, and Mohamed on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization. Only Fahmy, Mohamed, and Abdel Hamid were present at the trial on Saturday. Saad was forcibly disappeared in June alongside photojournalist Esraa Tawil, later appearing in a video published by security forces in which he confessed to belonging to a terrorist organization. His family denies the claims. 

The Verdict
Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed were were sentenced to three years in a maximum security prison. Mohamed was sentenced to an additional six months in prison and fined EGP 5,000 for possessing the bullet casing. The journalists were sentenced on charges of operating without a press license and broadcasting false news about Egypt. The judge did not sustain the conviction on terrorism charges. Saad, Abdel Raouf, and Abdel Hamid were also each sentenced to three years. Two other students, Khaled Abdel Rahman and Nora al-Banna, were acquitted of all charges.

Judge Hassan Farid delivered the verdicts, saying that the Al Jazeera three “were not journalists” because they had not officially registered as members of the press. He added that they had broadcast “false news” that was “harmful to Egypt” while operating without a permit and using unlicensed equipment. Prior to the verdict, a court-appointed technical committee found no evidence that the Al Jazeera journalists had fabricated footage in their reporting. Moreover, Egypt’s Press Syndicate, which Farid said the journalists should have registered with, only accepts members from print media, while Al Jazeera is a satellite television network. According to NPR’s Leila Fadel, possessing unlicensed equipment is a misdemeanor and should not have warranted a three year jail term. 

The Judge: Hassan Farid

Judge Hassan Farid, head of the Cairo Criminal Court, has issued verdicts in several high-profile cases. In July 2014, he sentenced Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and thirty-six other Islamists to life in jail. In February 2015, he sentenced prominent activist Alaa Abd al Fattah to five years in prison for violating Egypt’s protest law. On the same day as the Al jazeera trial, Farid sentenced two defendants to life in prison in a case involving violent clashes between security forces and protesters in Helwan last year.

Next steps

Appeal: The defendants can still appeal the verdict to Egypt’s highest court, the Court of Cassation. Al Jazeera’s head of litigation, Farah Muftah, said the ruling would be appealed once the judge publishes the basis for his sentencings. This is supposed to happen in thirty days, after which the defendants have thirty days to file an appeal. However, it could take months for an appeal to go to the Court of Cassation.

Pardon: There has been substantial international pressure on Sisi to pardon the journalists. Following the verdict, international human rights lawyer and Fahmy’s representative, Amal Clooney, called on Sisi to pardon the accused journalists, adding that the Canadian government submitted requests on Saturday for Fahmy’s pardon and deportation. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab also met with Clooney to discuss the possibility of a pardon. Clooney said in an interview with BBC that “we have two avenues but the one we are pushing for the most is for President Sisi to issue a pardon,” because doing so “would mean the conviction is reversed and it would apply to all journalists not just those who are foreign,” referring to the trial’s Egyptian defendants. In November, Sisi said he was considering a pardon for the journalists. 

Greste also called Sunday for Sisi to pardon him, Fahmy, and Mohamed. According to Egyptian law, however, the president can’t issue a presidential pardon unless the verdict is final, and the Al Jazeera prison sentences are not final, as they can be appealed.

Deportation: There is a possibility that Fahmy could be deported to Canada. In July 2014, Sisi said he wished that the Al Jazeera journalists had not been put on trial and said he wished “they’d been deported right after they were arrested.” He reiterated this in an interview with The Associated Press in September. In November, Sisi issued a decree that gave him the authority to transfer non-Egyptian defendants on trial or already convicted individuals to their home countries to be tried or serve their sentence. This was the basis for Greste’s deportation (although both Greste and Fahmy applied to be deported under the new law). Fahmy, a Canadian, gave up his Egyptian citizenship, but he was not deported, even though Canadian officials repeatedly raised his case with Egyptian officials. Mohamed, on the other hand, is an Egyptian citizen and has no chance of benefiting from this law. 

Reactions on Twitter
On Twitter, prior to the trial, many, including Greste and Fahmy, expressed hope that the journalists would be acquitted of the charges.

However, hope quickly turned to outrage following the judge’s verdict.

Reactions from lawyers and rights organizations:

Greste’s lawyer, Chris Flynn, called the verdict ”plainly political” and “unjust,” saying it “offends the rule of law.” He added, “as a process, the re-trial was a sham and was miscarried at every step.” He said he is looking to Sisi to “correct the injustice,” echoing Clooney’s statements regarding a presidential pardon.

In an  interview with CBC Egypt, Clooney expressed disappointment in the verdict. She said based on the Court of Cassation finding that the original conviction was based on little evidence, there was “every reason to hope that a fair and independent panel of judges would acquit these journalists on all charges” in a retrial. She called the verdict “nonsensical,” saying that holding unlicensed  equipment was at most an administrative violation and the responsibility of the journalist’s’ employer, rather than “a basis for individual criminal responsibility.” Continuing to call for a pardon, she said “President Sisi can fix this.” She added that the verdict “sends a very dangerous 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.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the ruling. CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said the trial was “carried out with no evidence and has caused great pain to Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, Peter Greste, and their families.” He added, “We call on Egyptian authorities to put an end to the abuse of the law which has made Egypt one of the riskiest countries in the world to be a journalist.”

Amnesty International called the verdict “farcical” and an “affront to justice that sound the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt.” Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, called for the verdict to be overturned immediately.

Reporters Without Borders said that it was “appalled” by the sentences handed to the journalists. Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire condemned the verdict, calling it “disgraceful” and “political.” “For those who didn’t already know, this grossly unfair trial shows the blatant disregard for media freedom in Egypt, where the limits are overstepped every day,” he said.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) also condemned the verdict, as did the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). ANHRI calling the trial politically motivated and stating that the verdict “constitutes continual hostility to the freedom of expression.” AFTE said the verdict infringes on Egypt’s domestic and international human rights obligations.

International Reactions

US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby released a statement saying “The United States is deeply disappointed and concerned by the verdict” given to Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed and urged the Egyptian government “to take all available measures to redress” the verdict, “which undermines the very freedom of expression necessary for stability and development.”

statement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep regret at the verdict and called for the cases of all the defendants “to be resolved expeditiously and in accordance with Egypt’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression and association and in full observance of due process guarantees.” A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Raad, said “We are very disturbed by these three sentences and the extra pressure it creates on journalists in Egypt who are just trying to do their jobs.”

The Delegation of the European Union to Egypt said the verdict “represents a setback for freedom of expression in Egypt” and called Greste’s sentencing in absentia in particular “a breach of Egypt’s international obligations under international law.” The Delegation called for the release of the defendants and for steps to be taken “to promote a safe environment for journalists.” The statement added that the delegation“looks forward to the appeals process.”

British Minister for Middle East and North Africa Tobias Ellwood said the sentencings would “undermine confidence in Egypt’s progress towards strong long-term stability based on implementing the rights granted by the Egyptian constitution.” British Ambassador to Egypt John Casson said he was “shocked and concerned” by the sentences issued by the court. Following the trial he stated, “Britain actively supports stability in Egypt. But the question today is whether this will be a fragile and temporary stability on the basis of suspending freedoms of media and expression and depriving individuals of their rights in the Egyptian constitution.” Ellwood and Casson also urged the Egyptian authorities to “take urgent action to resolve the position of the two British nationals in this case,” referring to Al Jazeera journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane who were sentenced in absentia in June 2014 in the first Al Jazeera trial.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reacted to the verdict on twitter, saying,“Canada continues to call on Egypt for the immediate and full release of Mr. Fahmy, and full co-operation to facilitate his return home.” Canada’s Minister of State Lynne Yelich released a formal statement expressing disappointment in Fahmy’s conviction. Yelich said the decision “severely undermines confidence in the rule of law in Egypt” and called on the Egyptian government “to use all tools at its disposal” to resolve Fahmy’s case and allow his immediate return to Canada. She added that Canada has raised Fahmy’s case with Egyptian officials at the highest levels.

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said she was “dismayed” by the court’s decision and called it a “distressing outcome for Mr. Greste, his family and supporters.” She confirmed that she will “continue to pursue all diplomatic avenues” with her Egyptian counterpart to clear Greste’s name. 

The Dutch Ambassador to Egypt Gerard Steeghs also expressed concern over the trial.

In addition, BBC Director of News and Current Affairs James Harding condemned the verdict. He said that while the BBC is “wary” of commenting on a story, it is “important to make clear… that journalists cannot be imprisoned for simply going out and doing their job.” He added, “The whole judicial process [in Egypt] is beginning to look like an act of intimidation.”

Egypt government reactions

The Egyptian government firmly rejected international criticism of the trial and its verdict.

A statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that the verdict “in no way relates to the freedom of the press, but rather to specific violations of the law.” The statement rejected “any commentary or statements by foreign parties on the verdict” and called such statements an “unacceptable intervention in the rulings of the Egyptian judiciary that “deliberately confuse issues related to the freedom of the press…with unrelated violations of the law.” An MFA spokesman cited the “thousands of Egyptian and foreign journalists working in Egypt with complete freedom” and said that those criticizing Egypt and the verdict “have much on their side that can be criticized.” 

In addition, the MFA summoned UK Ambassador Casson over his comments following the trial, calling them “unacceptable interference” in Egypt’s judicial affairs and “incompatible with diplomatic norms and practices.”  Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abou Zeid stated, “What is important is the confidence of the Egyptian people in the impartiality and independence of the trial…Egypt does not wait for lessons from anyone.” Despite other international criticism, the MFA did not summon any other foreign diplomats.

The British Embassy said Casson met Hisham Seif al-Din, chief of staff to Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, at the ministry’s request on Sunday following the summons. The Embassy said in a statement that “Ambassador Casson explained the UK position on yesterday’s court ruling set out in statements in London and Cairo yesterday.” The embassy added that Casson would relay the Egyptian ministry’s concerns to government ministers in London. 

Other journalists still in jail

In a June census, CPJ said that the number of imprisoned journalists in Egypt was at an all time high. CPJ found that at least eighteen journalists were behind bars for their reporting. “The threat of imprisonment in Egypt is part of an atmosphere in which authorities pressure media outlets to censor critical voices and issue gag orders on sensitive topics. Entire outlets… have been banned from operating or forced to close their offices,” CPJ said. The imprisoned include Egyptian photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawka, and Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany of the news website Rassd.

Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.