A wide range of international groups defending human rights and press freedom have condemned the verdict in the trial of the 20 Al Jazeera reporters who were arrested for reporting out of Egypt.
The journalists were sentenced today for a range of charges, from broadcasting false news to joining a terrorist organization, receiving from seven to ten years in prison. The channel was banned in Egypt shortly after the ouster of Mohamed Morsy, and the sentences are based on the idea that the channel's reporting is biased against Egypt's current regime and harms its image.
Among those sentenced were Cairo's Al Jazeera bureau chief, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Adel Fahmy and Australian reporter Peter Greste, who received seven years, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, who received ten years. Eleven other defendants, tried in absentia, were handed a ten-year sentence, including three foreign reporters, two British and one Dutch. Only two of the 20 were acquitted. The 16 Egyptians were charged with aiding a terrorist group.
The British government reacted harshly to the sentence, summoning the Egyptian ambassador in protest. “I am appalled by the guilty verdicts handed down today against Egyptian and international journalists in Egypt,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.
“I am particularly concerned by unacceptable procedural shortcomings during the trial process, including that key prosecution evidence was not made available to the defence team. Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of a stable and prosperous society,” he added.
Australia also showed its disapproval of the verdict. “We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it," said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. “It is hard to credit that the court in this case could have reached this conclusion.”
“The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case,” she added.
Reporters Without Borders, or Reporters Sans Frontières, the France-based group defending freedom of the press, released a press statement on Monday, wording a strong condemnation of the verdict.
“Not content with criminalizing all political opposition, the Egyptian authorities are pursuing a policy of gagging news media that try to offer a different take on reality from the government’s,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “We point out that such arrests and arbitrary convictions violate the provisions of the new constitution, especially article 71.”
US Secretary State John Kerry, having just left Cairo on a visit, called the Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy to convey his “serious displeasure” of the “chilling and draconian verdict.”
The UN's human rights chief Navi Pillay also weighed in on the sentence. “Egypt’s reputation, and especially the reputation of its judiciary as an independent institution, are at stake. There is a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt,” she said.
Human rights group Amnesty International called the ruling a “dark day for media freedom.” A trial observer from the organization noted that despite the prosecution failing to provide solid evidence linking the defendants to a terrorist organization or that they had fabricated footage, they were sentenced nonetheless.
“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.
“The only reason these three men are in jail is because the Egyptian authorities don’t like what they have to say. They are prisoners of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released. In Egypt today anyone who dares to challenge the state’s narrative is considered a legitimate target.”
The trial observer also alleged that the trial was unfair as defense was not allowed to review and refute evidence presented against them and the prosecutors often seemed disorganized, presenting irrelevant evidence. The observer also said key prosecution witnesses also seemed to contradict their own written testimonies.
“The trial was a complete sham. Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice,” said Philip Luther.
The New York Times also ran full blank back page on their Saturday print in solidarity with the Al Jazeera journalists, saying “This is what happens when you silence journalists. Show your support. Journalism is not a crime. #FreeAJStaff”
Meanwhile, the Egyptian media has shown little sympathy for the journalists, often calling them “terrorists” for what they claim is biased reporting in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many in Egypt hold the Al Jazeera Channel responsible for the civil strife following the ouster of Morsy, Egypt's first democratically-elected president, as they criticized his ouster.
The channel also reported from Rabaa al-Adaweya square, where almost 600 mostly unarmed pro-Morsy protesters were killed when the military cleared the square.
Critics of the channel says these events and other news were fabricated by the Qatar-based channel merely to destroy Egypt's image.