Three Al Jazeera journalists were handed harsh prison sentences on Monday morning in the Cairo Criminal Court based on accusations of aiding a terrorist group, tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad, threatening national security, and “creating a terrorist media network”.
Of the 20 defendants on trial, the crux of the case rested on three Al Jazeera journalists: Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, correspondent Peter Greste, and producer Baher Mohamed.
Fahmy and Greste were each handed seven years in a maximum security prison, while Mohamed was given seven years, plus an extra three years for being in possession of a spent bullet casing.
Dubbed the “Marriott Cell” by the prosecution and Egyptian media, Fahmy and Greste were arrested on the evening of 29 December at the Zamalek Marriott, where they were using two suites as a base of operation after Al Jazeera had faced repeated raids, arrests and confiscation of equipment.
Mohamed was arrested the same evening from his home in suburban Cairo.
Five students, accused of being Muslim Brotherhood members, were arrested days after the journalists from an apartment in Cairo’s Moqattam neighbourhood and added to the defendants in the trial.
One of the accused students was Anas Beltagy, son of Mohamed Beltagy, General Secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. Beltagy was acquitted of all charges.
In an earlier session, the prosecution asked the judge to apply the maximum sentencing guidelines if a guilty verdict is reached, which would have meant 15 years each for Fahmy and Mohamed, and seven years for Greste.
Greste was the only defendant who received the maximum sentence.
Greste, an Australian, was one of four foreign defendants named in the case. Fahmy, recognized by the court only as an Egyptian, also holds Canadian citizenship.
The other foreigners, being tried in absentia, are Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, who have previously worked for Al Jazeera in Cairo, but were not in the country at the time of arrest. Dutch journalist Rena Netjes was also a defendant, but has never worked for Al Jazeera, and was allowed to leave Egypt following discussions between the Dutch embassy and the foreign ministry.
All eleven defendants tried in absentia were handed 10 year sentences
The prosecution, on multiple occasions, aired video footage that was unrelated to Egypt, showed clips from networks other than Al Jazeera, and played sound recordings that were inaudible, presenting it as evidence.
“Previous court dates have bizarrely included the prosecution showing footage of Sky News Arabia tourism reports, BBC podcasts, songs by Gotye, photo-shopped images of Mohammed Fahmy, Peter Greste’s family photos, and some of Greste’s award-winning work from East Africa,” said Al Jazeera in a statement after a 16 June hearing.
On another occasion, three audio/visual witnesses for the prosecution were unable to recall the footage presented to them by the investigators. They could not identify if the footage constituted a crime, and one witness directly contradicted his written affidavit, and indicated the prosecutor added additional footage after it was viewed by the witnesses.
In a separate case, after 306 days in prison without charges and 147 days on hunger strike, Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdallah Elshamy was released from prison on 17 June. Elshamy was arrested while covering the violent dispersal of the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adaweya Square last August.
In previous interviews, Al-Jazeera said it no longer has staff members based in Egypt.