Cairo: Egypt faced international condemnation over the harsh jail sentences handed down to three al-Jazeera journalists – including Australian Peter Greste – with human rights groups describing the verdict as a black day in the country’s unrelenting assault on the freedom of expression.
Egypt’s relentless pursuit of Greste, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed was vindictive and politically motivated, Amnesty International said.
The prosecution had produced no evidence to back its claims or to support a conviction, Amnesty said, instead, the three were “pawns” in the bitter geopolitical dispute between Egypt and Qatar, the oil-rich Gulf country that finances al-Jazeera.
Qatar has long been perceived as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the multi-national religious and political group labelled a terrorist organisation in Egypt late last year as part of a vicious government security crackdown on the group and its supporters.
The Qatari government pumped billions of dollars in aid to support Egypt’s sinking economy during the 11-month term of the Muslim Brotherhood backed president, Mohamed Mursi.
Once Mursi was forced from power by the Egyptian military, acting on what it described as a groundswell of public support, the retribution against the Brotherhood and its backers was swift and brutal.
“The truth is that Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed are prisoners of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program Deputy Director.
As Peter Greste’s stunned family regrouped to plan the next phase of their campaign to free him from one of Egypt’s most notorious prisons where he has spent the last six months in a 3mx4m cell with his colleagues, the censures poured in from world leaders.
Just a day after he visited Egypt to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to announced the United States had released $US575m in military aid that had been frozen since the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi last July, US Secretary of State John Kerry was scathing in his criticism of the verdict.
“Today's conviction and chilling, draconian sentences by the Cairo Criminal Court of three al-Jazeera journalists and fifteen others in a trial that lacked many fundamental norms of due process, is a deeply disturbing set-back to Egypt's transition.
“Injustices like these simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward in the way that President al-Sisi and Foreign Minister [Sameh] Shoukry told me just yesterday that they aspire to see their country advance.”
Mr Kerry urged the Egyptian government to review all political sentences and verdicts pronounced during the last few years and consider all available remedies, including pardons.
But despite his strong words there was no indication that the newly-unfrozen military aid would have any human rights conditions attached.
The UK Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed Egypt's Ambassador would be summoned to the Foreign Office over the sentencing, which he described as "unacceptable".
The Dutch took similar action, with Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans confirming the Netherlands had summoned the Egyptian Ambassador.
Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the government was "bitterly disappointed with the outcome" - it is understood the Egyptian Ambassador to Australia would be meeting with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Tuesday.
"The Australian government is shocked at the verdict in the Peter Greste case. We are deeply dismayed by the fact that a sentence has been imposed and we are appalled by the severity of it."
Egypt's foreign ministry appeared to reject the wave of international criticism, putting out a statement on Monday evening claiming the country's judiciary "enjoys full independence, and the new constitution provides safeguards to ensure media freedom and to guarantee due process in judicial proceedings".
"The defendants in this case were arrested in accordance with warrants issued by the relevant investigative body, the Office of the Public Prosecutor; due process was adhered to with all of the defendants," the ministry said, noting the journalists still had the right to appeal.
But the ministry's statement fell on deaf ears.
Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mohamed received a 10-year term. Out of six others on trial alongside journalists, two were acquitted and four were sentenced to seven years.
The court also sentenced a number of other journalists to 10-year sentences in absentia, including al-Jazeera journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, both from the UK and the Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who has no association with Jazeera.
Egypt’s prosecutor general claimed the journalists had used unlicensed equipment to broadcast false information to defame and destabilise Egypt. Fahmy and Mohamed were further accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. All deny the charges, as do the others who were charged and tried in absentia.
Outside the court, Greste’s brothers Andrew and Michael struggled to make sense of the guilty verdict and the harsh sentences – both have been in court over the last six months and like all observers did not see any evidence presented that backed the prosecution’s claims.
“Gutted,” Andrew Greste said when asked how he was feeling outside the court at Tora Prison in Cairo. “All those words really don’t do my emotions justice.
Vowing that the family would fight on against the conviction, Andrew said the Egyptian authorities assured his family the trial would be fair and the justice system independent.
“It definitely wasn't an outcome we were expecting … we have had a family representative at each of the court session and I find it very difficult to understand how we get a decision like that.”
“[Peter] is not going to give up,” Andrew said. “Obviously he is going to be shattered as well as I am sure it was not an outcome he was expecting.”
The family is considering both a legal appeal to Egypt’s Court of Cassation and an appeal for clemency or a pardon from President al-Sisi.
The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also condemned the Jazeera verdicts.
Along with Saturday’s confirmation by an Egyptian court of the death penalty for 183 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters convicted in an earlier mass trial, the journalists’ sentences are the latest in a string of prosecutions and proceedings that have been “rife with procedural irregularities and in breach of international human rights law,” Ms Pillay said.
“It is not a crime to carry a camera, or to try to report various points of views about events,” Ms Pillay said. “It is not a crime to criticise the authorities, or to interview people who hold unpopular views.
“Journalists and civil society members should not be arrested, prosecuted, beaten up or sacked for reporting on sensitive issues. They should not be shot for trying to report or film things we, the public, have a right to know are happening.”