Egypt summons UK ambassador over criticisms of al-Jazeera trial

Egypt summons UK ambassador over criticisms of al-Jazeera trial
Egypt summoned the British ambassador over comments he made on an Egyptian court's decision to hand down prison sentences for Al Jazeera journalists, it was reported on Sunday.
6 min read
30 August, 2015
Tje court sentenced the journalists to 3 yeatrs in jail. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images]

Egypt summoned the British ambassador to reject as "unacceptable interference" comments he made after the court's decision to hand down prison sentences for three Al Jazeera journalists, state media said on Sunday.

After the court on Saturday sentenced the journalists to three years imprisonment for operating without a license, British Ambassador John Casson said he was shocked and concerned in the wake of the decision.

The case has stoked an international outcry and raised questions over Egypt's stated commitment to democracy nearly five years after an uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"Britain actively supports stability in Egypt," Casson wrote on Facebook. "But the question today is whether this will be a fragile and temporary stability on the basis of suspending freedoms of media and expression and depriving individuals of their rights in the Egyptian constitution."

The foreign ministry expressed its "strong objection" to Casson's comments, describing them as an "unacceptable interference" in Egypt's judiciary, state news agency MENA said.

An Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera TV journalists to three years in prison on Saturday for 'operating without a press license' and broadcasting material 'harmful to Egypt', a case that has stirred an international outcry.

The verdict, in a retrial, was issued against Mohamed Fahmy, a naturalised Canadian who has given up his Egyptian citizenship, Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Peter Greste, an Australian who was deported in February.

'Politicised trial'

Rights advocates say their arrest was part of a crackdown on free speech waged since the army overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, in July 2013.

The three men were originally sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison on charges that included 'spreading lies to help a terrorist organisation', a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The three defendants denied all charges, calling them absurd. Three other Egyptians, all students, also received three-year sentences for the same charges. 

Speaking on Al Jazeera in reaction to Saturday's verdict, Greste said he was shocked at the scale of the sentence. "Words really don't do justice," he said. "To be given three-year sentences is outrageous. It is just devastating for me."

Fahmy and Mohamed, who were released on bail in February after over a year in jail, were taken back into custody after the verdict, according to Fahmy's wife, Marwa Omara. She was in tears after the sentences were read out.

"In the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, the only conclusion that we can come to is that this verdict was politically motivated," Greste told reporters in Sydney on Sunday. "President Sissi now has an opportunity to undo that injustice. The eyes of the world are on Egypt."

Mostefa Souag, Al-Jazeera's acting director-general, also criticized the verdict, saying it "defies logic and common sense." 

"The whole case has been heavily politicised and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner," Souag said in a statement. "There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organizations and at no point during the long

     The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt.
Amal Clooney, human rights lawyer

drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny."

Judge Hassan Farid, in his ruling, said he sentenced the men to prison because they had not registered with the country's journalist syndicate. He also said the men brought in equipment without security officials' approval, had broadcast "false news" on Al-Jazeera and used a hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.

"I am asking for justice, for fairness," she said while leaving the court. "I feel extremely disappointed because I love my country and I know that Mohammed loves his country....It's really hard for us."

'Dangerous message'

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who represented Fahmy on Saturday, said she would be meeting with Egyptian officials later in the day along with Canadian Ambassador Troy Lulashnyk to press for a presidential pardon.

"The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt," Clooney said. "Journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news. And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda."

"We are now going to be holding in Cairo a series of meetings with government officials where we will be asking for a pardon, in this case, and if a pardon is not immediately available then deportation to Canada," she said.

The case dates back to December 2013, when Egyptian security forces raided the upscale hotel suite used by Al-Jazeera at the time to report from Egypt.

The journalists began using the hotel as a base of operations after the Al-Jazeera English office near Tahrir Square was raided by police.

Authorities arrested Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed, later charging them with allegedly being part of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organization, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.

Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, was removed from power by the military in July 2013. Since Morsi's ouster, Egypt's coup authorties have cracked down on his supporters, and the journalists were accused of being mouthpieces for the Brotherhood. 

     The case has brought a landslide of international condemnation and calls for Sissi, to intervene.

The three men were convicted on June 23, 2014, with Greste and Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years for being found with a spent bullet casing. That ruling was later overturned on appeal by Egypt's Court of Cassation, which said the initial proceedings were marred by violations of the defendants' rights, but a retrial was ordered. 

Three Egyptian students accused of supporting the Brotherhood with propaganda and video footage were also sentenced to three years each in the verdict, while two other people were acquitted.

The case has brought a landslide of international condemnation and calls for Sissi, to intervene. Egypt deported Greste in February, though he remained charged in the case. Fahmy and Mohammed were later released on bail.

Fahmy was asked to give up his Egyptian nationality by Egyptian officials in order to qualify for deportation. It's not clear why he wasn't deported, though Fahmy said he thinks Canada could have pressed Cairo harder on the matter.

Angered by Al-Jazeera's handling of the case, Fahmy has filed a lawsuit in Canada seeking $100 million from the broadcaster, saying that it put the story ahead of employee safety and used its Arabic-language channels to advocate for the Brotherhood.

Al-Jazeera has said Fahmy should seek compensation from Egypt.

The European Union and the Committee to Protect Journalists criticiced the verdict as well, with the advocacy group saying it was "emblematic of the threats faced by journalists in Egypt," where it says at least 22 journalists are wrongfully behind bars.