Behind the story of the jailed Al-Jazeera journalists

Behind the story of the jailed Al-Jazeera journalists
The arrest of Al-Jazeera journalists was widely deemed to be part of a political spat between Egypt and Qatar. With reconciliation between the two regional powers on the cards, could Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baha Mohamed soon walk free?
5 min read
01 January, 2015
The arrests have sparked global condemnation [Getty]

One year and a few days have passed since three Al-Jazeera journalists were first detained by Egyptian authorities.

December 29 marked the one-year anniversary of their arrested at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. After that, the three men became trapped in the Egyptian court system in a case that was to be known in the media as "the Marriott Cell affair".

The Al-Jazeera trio received sentences of between seven and 10 years in prison, before the Court of Cassation overruled the sentences this morning.

The arrest

In 2013, Egyptian security forces raided a hotel suite where Al-Jazeera English journalists were staying in the Zamalek district, and arrested Peter Greste, an Australian national, and the Egyptian-Canadian head of the channel's Cairo bureau, Mohamed Fahmy.

Baher Mohamed, the third detained al-Jazeera journalist, had been sitting in his study at his home in 6 October City, when he heard his dog bark. He rushed to the garden where he found the dog lying on the ground, surrounded by police officers. They arrested the journalist, searched his home, confiscated his laptop, and took him to a police station.

The court subsequently sentenced 11 defendants, including some in absentia, to prison terms.

Anas Mohamed Beltagy and Ahmed Abdel-Hamid were acquitted by the court. The Egyptian prosecutors had charged them with "belonging to and supporting a terrorist organisation", "disseminating false news", and "disturbing the public peace".

The journalists

Mohamed Fahmy had worked for several international news agencies and publications, including The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, throughout his award-winning career. The 41-year-old also worked for Dubai TV and served as bureau chief for al-Hurra TV in Egypt and Dubai.

Fahmy had also spent two years working with the Red Cross in Lebanon, focusing on prisoners' rights. Before he joined Al-Jazeera's English team in Egypt, he had worked for CNN for more than two years.

Fahmy received the Tom Renner Investigative Reporting Award in 2012 for producing a 30-minute documentary for CNN. In May, 2014, Fahmy, still in prison, was chosen by Unesco and the World Press Freedom Committee as the recipient of the World Press Freedom Day annual award, honouring his 15-year career and achievements in journalism.

Peter Greste has worked for some of the most well-regarded news organisations in the world, including Reuters, CNN, and the BBC, before he moved to Al-Jazeera English. The 51-year-old had found himself posted to several hotspots over the years, including the Afghan capital, where he covered the US-led invasion in 2001; Belgrade; and many African cities ravaged by conflict and civil war.

Greste has worked in London, Latin America, South Africa, and Kenya, before being posted to Egypt - just days before he found himself locked behind bars.

Baher Mohamed is an Egyptian journalist and father of three. He has also worked for many outlets, including Japan's Asahi Shimbun, the US-based CNN, and Iran's Press TV.

The allegations

The journalists charged in the Marriott Cell affair never stopped denying the claims they were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed Fahmy, his family, and his lawyers issued a series of statements denying any affiliation to the Islamist group, and confirmed that he had taken part in the [anti-Brotherhood] protests of June 30, 2013.

A number of Egyptian artists, politicians, and businesspeople such as Khaled Aboul Naga, Amr Moussa, and Naguib Sawiris even appeared in videos in support of Fahmy, and spoke about his participation in the June 30 protests.

Fahmy's family also filed a request this week with the Public Prosecutor, asking for the detained journalist to be transferred to a prison in Canada. His family stated in its request that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had issued a law on November 1 allowing foreign defendants to be deported to their home countries, to be tried or to serve out their sentences there.

The timeline

Following the arrest, the Egyptian authorities charged the trio with belonging to a terrorist organisation, disseminating false news, and disturbing the public peace in Case No. 353/2013, filed with the Supreme State Security Court in Giza.

On January 29, 2014, the Egyptian Public Prosecutor referred the 20 defendants in the case to the Criminal Court.

On June 23, 2014, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste to seven years in a maximum security prison and Baher Mohamed to 10 years, in addition to issuing prison sentences in absentia against others.

On August 21, 2014, the journalists' lawyers appealed against the sentences issued by the Cairo Criminal Court. A hearing was set for the appeal today, January 1, 2015, before the Court of Cassation.

The pardon?

Fahmy did not use the legal team provided by Al-Jazeera English. Instead, his family hired Egyptian human rights lawyer Negad Borai and Lebanese-British lawyer Amal Alamuddin.

Following the Riyadh-brokered reconciliation agreement between Egypt and Qatar, Boari and Alamuddin held a press conference calling on Al-Jazeera and Qatar to respect the agreement, "which requires that parties... not foment hatred between groups but work openly and cooperatively with each other in a spirit of reconciliation".

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had told France 24 TV that he was considering issuing a presidential pardon for two of the three journalists.

Since then, rumours of an "imminent" presidential pardon have swirled, while the families of the three men remain waiting.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.