CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Monday convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges after a trial dismissed by rights groups as a politically motivated sham. The verdict brought a landslide of international condemnation and calls for the newly elected president to intervene.
The ruling stunned the defendants and their families, many of whom had hoped their loved ones would be released because of international pressure on the case. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who a day earlier had discussed the case in a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, denounced the verdict as "chilling and draconian."
The unprecedented trial of journalists on terror charges was tied up in the government's fierce crackdown on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood since the ouster last year of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi by el-Sissi, then the army chief. Further fueling accusations that the trial was politically motivated is the Egyptian government's deep enmity with the Gulf nation Qatar, which was a close ally of Morsi and which owns the Al-Jazeera network.
Prosecutors had accused the three — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed — of promoting or belonging to the Brotherhood and of falsifying their coverage of protests by Morsi's supporters to hurt Egypt's security and make it appear the country is sliding into civil war. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The journalists, who were detained in December, say they are being prosecuted simply for doing their job and are pawns in the political rivalry. During the 5-month trial, prosecutors presented no evidence backing the charges, at times citing random video footage found with the defendants that even the judge dismissed as irrelevant. They depicted typical activity like editing as a sign of falsification.
Mohammed, the team's producer, had three years added to his 7-year sentence for possessing ammunition, based on a single spent cartridge he picked up at a protest as a souvenir. A Dutch freelance journalist — who did not work for Al-Jazeera but met Fahmy once for tea at the hotel where the team lived and worked — received a 10-year prison sentence. She and two British Al-Jazeera journalists who got the same sentence were tried in absentia.
"They will pay for this, I promise," Fahmy, who was Al-Jazeera English's acting Cairo bureau chief, shouted angrily after the sentences were announced as guards pulled him by his already injured shoulder from the courtroom and his mother and fiancee broke into tears.
"Did anybody see any evidence against him? Did he do anything? Anything?" Fahmy's mother, Wafaa Bassiouni cried.
His brother Adel said the family would appeal. But he had little hope, saying, "This is a screwed up system. This whole government is incompetent."
Greste silently raised a clenched fist in defiance as mayhem erupted in the courtroom. An award-winning correspondent, Greste had only just arrived in Cairo to start work with Al-Jazeera English when he was arrested. He speaks no Arabic and relied on a translator during the proceedings.
In Australia, Greste's father said his family considered the court's decision "a slap in the face and a kick in the groin to Australia as well as all fair-minded people around the world." Juris Greste told reporters in the family's hometown of Brisbane on Tuesday that he was in a state of shock and was struggling to think straight.
"I have to say this morning my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are," Juris Greste told a news conference accompanied by his wife Lois. "You can never prepare yourself for something as painful as this."
He told reporters, "Journalism is not a crime, or you should all be behind bars— it's a simple as that. Our son Peter is an award-winning journalist, he is not a criminal."
Australia's Foreign Affairs department has called in Egypt's deputy ambassador to make an official objection to the court ruling. The ambassador is currently in Cairo.
"We're obviously shocked, dismayed, really bewildered by the decision of the court in Egypt," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters.
Abbott said Australia respects the legitimacy of the Egyptian government, its justice system and the need "to crack down on extremism including the Muslim Brotherhood, but ... it is important that there be due process, it is important that decisions be made on a fair and just basis, so we will be talking to the Greste family, we will be talking to the Egyptian government about what we can do to try to ensure that Peter Greste comes home as quickly as possible."