On Monday the State Information Service, on behalf of the Ministry of Justice’s International Cooperation Department, released a statement defending the 23 June verdict that sentenced three journalists to prison for 7 to 10 years.
Of the 20 defendants in the drawn out trial, the crux of the prosecution’s arguments rested on three Al Jazeera English journalists: Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, a Canadian citizen; correspondent Peter Greste, an Australian national; and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian.
The trial was monitored closely by the local and international media, human rights organisations, representatives from the Canadian and Australian embassies, and the American government—Egypt’s largest supplier of military aid.
As soon as the charges against the journalists were announced on 29 January, exactly a month after their 29 December arrest, the United States criticised the accusations as “spurious”.
When the harsh verdict was announced, a firestorm of international criticism was immediately unleashed. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she was “shocked” by the verdict and was unable to comprehend how the court came to that decision. American Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentencing both “chilling” and “draconian”, while United Kingdom Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “appalled by the guilty verdicts”.
Latvia, The Netherlands and Sweden also publicly expressed their dismay, while Human Rights Watch called it a “dark day for journalism”.
Twenty-one days after the verdict, the Egyptian judiciary issued a response to what their statement called “numerous complaints and inquiries from nongovernmental organisations and human rights activists all around the world”.
“The facts of this case is that the Public Prosecution Office has charged [the defendants] with the crimes that they committed during the duration between 3 October 2013 until 29 December 2013,” read the statement.
The charges listed revolve around the journalists joining and aiding an unnamed “illegal group, the purpose of which is to call for interrupting the provisions of the constitution and the laws, preventing the state’s institutions and public authorities from exercising its works, and infringing upon the personal freedom of citizens”. From the trial, it is clear that the “illegal group” in question is the Muslim Brotherhood, which they are accused of aiding with “material and financial assistance”, and spreading false news to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s position.
Mohamad Elmasry, Visiting Scholar at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies, an Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of North Alabama, and formerly a professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, said the statement is proof that the government does not respect press freedom.
“There is international consensus among human rights groups and political scientists that Egypt’s trial of Al Jazeera journalists was farcical and politically motivated. As has been extensively documented, the trial presented absolutely no evidence that the journalists presented ‘false’ news or linking them to a terror organisation,” said Elmasry.
“The statement released 14 July by the Egyptian State Information Service is evidence that the Egyptian authorities remain oblivious to basic principles of human rights, freedom, and the rule of law.”
Firstly, it insists the journalists’ crimes began on 3 October, but it fails to mention that the Muslim Brotherhood was not officially made an “illegal group” until 25 December—four days before the journalists’ arrest. It also fails to mention that Greste arrived in the country only two weeks before his arrest, rendering it impossible for him to commit crimes in Egypt before that.
The statement said the role of the prosecutor is “to ascertain whether a case is to be referred to the competent court or not, it has to carry out its duties with the objective of discovering and revealing all the evidence in a crime regardless of whether they are in favour or against the accused.”
But many found the evidence presented confusing and irrelevant.
“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.
Other evidence included a recorded phone call that was all but inaudible, and Muslim Brotherhood-related literature found in the Marriott suites the journalists had been using as a base of operations.
While the International Cooperation Department’s statement widely cites articles 94 and 96 from the 2014 constitution, which guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial, it does not mention articles 70 and 71 which guarantee the freedom of the press and protection against censorship.
The statement reiterates that the journalists were treated exceptionally well in custody. “Relatives of A Jazeera journalists and their lawyers were allowed to visit them numerous times notwithstanding that Law 396/56 regarding prisons do not allow except two visits per month, one regular and the other special,” said the statement, but the journalists themselves have described poor treatment in prison.
Fahmy, who injured his shoulder in the days before his arrest, claims he was denied medical attention and now has limited mobility in his right arm.
“My right arm is permanently damaged,” Fahmy said in a 16 June courtroom speech to the presiding judge Mohamed Nagy. “They keep telling me in prison, ‘You’re just a journalist anyways. Why do you need a fully functional arm? You just type.’”
“This damage is due to negligence. I asked to be transferred to a hospital or get a bed in my cell. I spent a month and a half sleeping on the floor in the cold, always handcuffed… My arm could have been saved if it was treated early enough.”
The statement by the judiciary widely cites European cases as precedent for the guilty verdict in the Al Jazeera trial, including cases from Austria, Ireland and Switzerland in which the need for security and the ability to fight terrorism trumped press freedom, but neglects the fact that there was no evidence presented that linked the journalists to terrorists.
“In conclusion,” the statement ends, “it is apparent that the convicted three journalists of Al Jazeera English enjoyed all the guarantees embodied within the ambit of the right to fair trial. And their rights and freedoms were never violated or infringed upon at any time. Therefore, it is clear that all the aforementioned complaints were ill-founded.”