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Egyptian court sentences Al-Jazeera journalists to 3 years in jail for 'spreading false news'

Court acquits 2 defendants; rights advocates charge the verdict is 'death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt'; judge says those he convicted 'spread false news to harm national interest'

Ahram Online , Saturday 29 Aug 2015
Al-Jazeera
Marwa Fahmy wife of Canadian Al-Jazeera English journalist Mohammed Fahmy, bursts into tears, as she is watched by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, after the verdict in a courtroom in Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015 (AP)
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An Egyptian court sentenced Saturday six defendants, including three journalists and three students, to three years in prison in the Al-Jazeera retrial case.

Former Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who had given up his Egyptian nationality in the first trial to avoid being sentenced in Egypt, was among those sentenced to three years imprisonment.

Ex-Al-Jazeera producer Baher Mohamed received three years and six months in jail.

Australian journalist Peter Greste, who also worked for the Qatari-based TV station, was also sentenced in absentia to three years in prison.

Three students, Sohaib Saad, Khaled Mohamed and Shadi Abdel Hamid, were also sentenced to three years in prison.

Of the six convicted, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Shadi Abdel-Hamid attended the hearing, and all three were taken to Tora prison after the verdict.

Two other defendants, Khaled Abdel-Rahman and Nour Hassan El-Banna, were acquitted by the court.

The guilty verdicts can be appealed.

Prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney attended the court session Saturday as an advocate for Mohamed Fahmy, the former Al-Jazeera Cairo bureau chief.

Several Western envoys, including Canadian Ambassador Troy Lulashnyk and British Ambassador John Casson, attended Saturday's hearing.

Fahmy, a naturalised Canadian who gave up his Egyptian citizenship in February 2015 in an attempt to seek deportation, and Baher Mohamed were released on bail in February after more than a year in jail.

Greste was deported in February 2015 under a presidential decree issued by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in 2014 that allows foreign nationals to continue their pretrial detention or post-trial prison sentences in their home countries.

The general prosecution had accused the defendants of joining an outlawed group, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, obstructing governmental institutions and law, attacking the personal liberty of citizens or other freedoms, and harming national unity and social peace.

Baher Mohamed received an extra sentence of six months for possessing a bullet. 

“We will file an appeal,” member of their legal team Mostafa Nagui told Ahram Online.

Nagui added that he is optimistic the appeal session will take place by January or February 2016.

Appeal cases in Egypt can take months to be processed due to an overloaded legal system.

The defendants have already served 14 months of the three year sentences.

It's not clear whether Fahmy will be deported following the verdict or not.

Amal Clooney criticised the verdict, saying it sends a message that "journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news."

Clooney also said that the verdict sends another "dangerous message" that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become "instruments of political repression and propaganda."

Amnesty International also condemned in a statement on Saturday the verdict, describing it as the "death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt."

However, Judge Hassan Farid reasoned that the court had determined that the defendants could not be viewed as journalists since they are not members of Egypt's Journalists Syndicate, nor had they registered with the state's General Information Authority, which grants foreign reporters permits to work in the country.

The court further determined, Farid said, that the defendants possessed unlicensed broadcasting equipment that they used to publish false news on Al-Jazeera TV stations, which are not licensed to operate in Egypt, to harm the country. 

Egyptian authorities accuse the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera of bias to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, allegations the network denies.

The three Al-Jazeera English journalists were arrested in December 2013 during coverage of the unrest that followed the ouster of Morsi.

They were convicted last year and sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail over charges of assisting a terror group, in reference to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and "spreading false news harmful to national security."

In January, a defence appeal was granted and a retrial set.

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