Thursday, July 31, 2014

Egypt: Al-Jazeera staff spend their 200th day behind bars

Mada Masr
Conflicting statements about Jazeera detainees on 200th day in prison

Thursday, July 17, 2014

As of Wednesday, three Al Jazeera staff members have been languishing in prison for 200 days. Their arrest on December 29, and their conviction on June 23, has sent shockwaves across Egypt and the world.

Since the June 23 verdict, Egypt’s ruling authorities have issued a number of conflicting statements regarding the trial, its outcome, the independence of the judiciary, and press freedoms.

Australian reporter Peter Greste was sentenced to seven years in prison along with the bureau chief of Al Jazeera English Mohamed Fahmy (Egyptian-Canadian), while producer Baher Mohamed (Egyptian) was sentenced to 10 years. Another two UK journalists — Sue Turton and Dominic Kane — and Dutch journalist Rena Netjes were all sentenced in absentia to 10 years imprisonment.

On Wednesday, Australian media outlets citing the Egyptian Ambassador in Canberra reported that a presidential pardon for Greste and his colleagues was “unlikely.”

When asked if he thought the verdict was right or wrong, Ambassador Hassan al-Laithy told ABC Radio Canberra: “The word right or wrong is not applicable, I would have loved to see Peter Greste reunited with his family.”

Laithy went on to say: “It's not about my wish, or our wish. It’s about when the rule of law is the case.”

When asked if he thought such verdicts against journalists were moving Egypt forward or backward, Laithy added: “I hope it is only a phase that will be over in the near future. I can see encouragement in this direction.”

The day after the verdict was issued, President Sisi announced on June 24 that he would not intervene in the affairs of the judiciary, which he described as “independent” and “exalted.”

Sisi would later tone down his statements. On July 7, in a meeting with leading Egyptian editors and writers, he commented that the court verdict: “Had very negative effects” and had hurt Egypt’s image abroad.

The military-chief-turned-president added: “I wished they were deported right after they were arrested instead of being put on trial.”

Sisi’s preference for the deportation of journalists has also been criticized, especially given that two out of three jailed defendants are Egyptian nationals.

More recently on July 14, Egypt’s official State Information Service website issued a press statement from the Ministry of Justice in which it defended the country’s judicial system, while condemning the Al Jazeera journalists as “criminals.”

“The Ministry of Justice has received numerous complaints and inquiries from nongovernmental organizations and human rights activists all around the world,” the statement maintained, at the same time as defending the verdict against three journalists guilty of “aiding terrorists and endangering national security.”

Citing the Office of the Prosecutor General, the statement claims the three Al Jazeera staffers are also guilty of: “joining an illegal group — the purpose of which was to disrupt the Constitution and laws — preventing the state's institutions and public authorities from exercising their duties, and infringing upon the personal freedoms of citizens, in order to endanger public order and compromise the integrity and security of society, using terrorism as a method to carry out the purposes called for by the aforementioned illegal group.”

The statement further claimed that, “all defenses were verbally examined during the hearings” and “the court was bound to render its verdict based only on the evidence produced during the trial.”

Amongst this so-called evidence examined in court were recorded interviews conducted in other countries (not relating to Egypt), and a music video by Australian pop star Gotye.

The SIS statement also mentioned that the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 upholds freedom of expression, opinion and publication (stipulated in Article 65), but added that, “rights and freedoms cannot be extended to all individuals.”

According to a statement published on July 16 on Mohamed Fahmy’s blog — which is updated by his family: “200 days of injustice, solitary confinement and collective punishment has left me and my colleagues, Peter Greste and Baher Mohammed, more determined than ever to fight this war against freedom of speech.”

Fahmy points out that prosecutors explained to him from the beginning of the trial: “You are here because of Qatar.” Al Jazeera is based in the Qatari capital Doha, where the ruling monarchy is widely perceived as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The statement issued by the Ministry of Justice adds that Al Jazeera’s staff members “were tried without undue delay.” However, a fourth Al Jazeera staffer, reporter Abdallah al-Shamy, was jailed for more than 10 months without charge or trial. After being locked-up in the Scorpion Maximum Security Prison, where he embarked on a hunger strike lasting 140 days, Shamy was eventually released on June 17.

On the occasion of his 200th day behind bars, Fahmy commented: “We all respected the Egyptian judicial system and played along in what has become a theatrical trial broadcast all over the world.
“As the authorities paraded me and my colleagues out of the cage, it became evident to the journalistic community that this trial was another sign of the crackdown on any dissent in Egypt and a subliminal message to local journalists who do not conform to the government’s line.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described the June 23 verdict as: “A politically orchestrated trial” and “a sign of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature.”

Amnesty International issued a statement describing the aforementioned verdict as “a dark day for media freedom in the country.” While Amnesty’s Philip Luther announced, “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.”

“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,” Luther added.

After clearing the US handover of Apache Helicopters to Egypt on June 22, the following day Secretary of State John Kerry described the verdicts as: “chilling and draconian.”

The UK’s (former) Foreign Secretary William Hague announced on June 23 that he was “appalled by the guilty verdicts handed down against Egyptian and international journalists.”

Hague added: “I am particularly concerned by unacceptable procedural shortcomings during the trial process, including that key prosecution evidence was not made available to the defense team. Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of a stable and prosperous society.”

According to Amnesty’s Luther: “Instead of locking up journalists and others perceived to pose a threat, the authorities should focus their efforts on conducting credible investigations into abuses by the security forces.”

While Egypt’s judiciary claims to be independent, its track record points in another direction. Over the course of the past year, judges have issued lengthy prison sentences against opposition forces and journalists, while simultaneously acquitting police forces of any wrongdoing, despite the hundreds killed. This will continue to raise questions regarding the extent of the politicization of Egypt’s judicial system.

RSF ranked Egypt as the third deadliest country (after Syria and Iraq) for journalists in 2013, while in terms of press freedoms it ranked 158th out of 179 in 2013, and 159th out of 180 countries in 2014.

The Al Jazeera network insists that its staff members in Egypt are innocent of the “false accusations” levelled against them. It calls for vigils and rallies for the release of these three staffers, along with online campaigns using the hashtag: #FreeAJStaff.

Online petitions for the release of the three Al Jazeera staffers also include: “Journalism Is Not A Crime.”

*Photo by Amir Makar

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