NEW YORK -- For nearly six months, supporters of press freedom have called on Egypt to release three imprisoned Al Jazeera English journalists in a worldwide campaign declaring that “journalism is not a crime.” The network even ran a full-page ad to that effect in Sunday's New York Times.
But on Monday, an Egyptian court essentially ruled that journalism is a crime by sentencing the three journalists to prison on spurious terrorism-related charges. Australian Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy received seven-year sentences and Egyptian Baher Mohammed received a 10-year one.
The Egyptian government, which seized power last July in a military-backed coup, has cracked down hard on media outlets perceived as sympathetic to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, most notably the Qatar-backed Al Jazeera network.
The three journalists working for Al Jazeera's English-language network were covering anti-government protests when they were detained in December. Pro-government media portrayed the journalists' office in a Cairo hotel as a secret terrorist cell in an effort to suggest that nefarious, non-journalistic activities were taking place. But during the trial, prosecutors produced no evidence showing the journalists supported the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving many outside observers to believe they would not be convicted.
The trial -- which the journalists watched from cages -- sparked an international outcry, evident in the #freeAJstaff Twitter campaign, and drew criticism from other countries, including the United States.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Egypt on Sunday and "implicitly endorsed" the military-backed government, condemned the verdict on Monday and said he had already contacted Egypt's foreign minister to express concerns.
"Today's conviction and chilling, draconian sentences by the Cairo Criminal Court of three Al Jazeera journalists and fifteen others in a trial that lacked many fundamental norms of due process, is a deeply disturbing set-back to Egypt's transition," Kerry said in a statement. "Injustices like these simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward in the way that President al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Shoukry told me just yesterday that they aspire to see their country advance."
The verdict drew immediate condemnation from Al Jazeera, human rights groups, foreign governments and fellow journalists. Al Anstey, the managing director of Al Jazeera English, said it “defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice.”
“Today three colleagues and friends were sentenced, and will continue behind bars for doing a brilliant job of being great journalists,” Anstey said. “'Guilty' of covering stories with great skill and integrity. 'Guilty' of defending people's right to know what is going on in their world.”
Anstey said there was “not a shred of evidence” to convict the journalists and called for the verdict to be overturned.
Amnesty International, which considers the three journalists to be prisoners of conscience, called for their release, saying it's a "dark day for media freedom."
“The trial was a complete sham," said Philip Luther, the group's director of the Middle East and North Africa. “Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday it was "shocked" by the ruling and that the "convictions should be overturned immediately."
Representatives for several foreign governments similarly expressed disappointment with the verdict.
Canadian ambassador David Drake told the Associated Press, "We have to put our faith in the judicial system. We don't understand this particular verdict." British ambassador James Watt was also dismayed, saying, “freedom of expression is fundamental to any democracy." Australian Foreign Minister Julia Bishop said her government was "shocked by this verdict."
James Harding, director of news and current affairs at the BBC, described the verdict as "preposterously unjust" and "an act of intimidation against all journalists." The network plans to hold a moment of silence Tuesday morning in support of the journalists.
Twenty people were tried in the terrorism case, including several Egyptian students and other journalists in absentia. On Monday the court also sentenced a British and Dutch journalist to 10 years in prison; neither is currently located in the country.
There was some hope that Egypt's government might let the three journalists go following the release last week of Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdullah Elshamy. He had been separately detained in August and was engaged in a hunger strike, but he had never been charged with any crime.
Instead, the guilty verdict will only raise fears that journalists in Egypt can be imprisoned, and convicted of crimes, simply for doing their jobs.
Full statement by Secretary of State John Kerry:
Today's conviction and chilling, draconian sentences by the Cairo Criminal Court of three Al Jazeera journalists and fifteen others in a trial that lacked many fundamental norms of due process, is a deeply disturbing set-back to Egypt's transition. Injustices like these simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward in the way that President al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Shoukry told me just yesterday that they aspire to see their country advance.
As I shared with President al-Sisi during my visit to Cairo, the long term success of Egypt and its people depends on the protection of universal human rights, and a real commitment to embracing the aspirations of the Egyptians for a responsive government. Egyptian society is stronger and sustainable when all of its citizens have a say and a stake in its success.
Today's verdicts fly in the face of the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the real rule of law. I spoke with Foreign Minister Shoukry again today to make very clear our deep concerns about these convictions and sentences.
Yesterday, President al-Sisi and I frankly discussed these issues and his objectives at the start of his term as President. I call on him to make clear, publicly, his government’s intention to observe Egypt’s commitment to the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the rule of law. The Egyptian government should review all of the political sentences and verdicts pronounced during the last few years and consider all available remedies, including pardons.