UPDATE 3: Al Jazeera journalists get 7-10 years in jail

El-Sayed Gamal El-Din, Ayat Al-Tawy, Monday 23 Jun 2014

Six defendants in Al Jazeera trial are handed seven years in prison, one receives 10 years and two are acquitted

Al Jazeera journalists
Al Jazeera producer Baher Mohamed, left, and correspondent Peter Greste, centre, are being held in Egypt (Photo: AP)

Three Al Jazeera journalists who have been held in Egypt since December have been sentenced to seven years in jail, according to Ahram Online's reporter at the courthouse.

The three defendants are Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed. They have been on trial along with 17 others on charges of "spreading false news," falsely portraying Egypt as being in a state of "civil war," as well as aiding or joining the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

In addition to his seven-year sentence, Baher Mohamed was handed an extra three-year term as well as an LE5,000 fine for possessing ammunition.

The case, which began on 20 February and spanned over 12 hearings, has provoked fears about the future of media freedom and the muzzling of political dissent in Egypt. Local and global rights watchdogs, as well as international news organisations, have repeatedly called for the release of the detained journalists.

Four other defendants have been sentenced to seven years in jail while two -- including the son of prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagy -- have been acquitted.

Nine of the 20 defendants are in custody, while the 11 co-defendants who are being tried in absentia received 10-year terms each, judicial sources said.

Sixteen of the defendants are Egyptians accused of joining the Brotherhood -- designated by Egyptian authorities as a "terrorist organisation". 

The four foreigners in the case--including Greste, two Britons and a Dutch national--face allegations of assisting and collaborating with the Egyptian co-defendants by providing money, media material and equipment, as well as publishing lies harming national interests.

Egypt authorities have been infuriated by the coverage of the Qatar-based satellite network Al Jazeera since the ouster of Islamist president Mohame Morsi last year.

The network has contributed to straining ties between Cairo and Doha, a staunch supporter of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group.

Al Jazeera has repeatedly dismissed the charges against its journalists and called for their immediate release.

The network said that the prosecution produced an assortment of non-relevant items as evidence, including a BBC podcast and "a news report made while none of the accused were in Egypt". 

Monday's sentences come almost a week after authorities granted medical release to Abdullah El-Shamy, an Al Jazeera Arabic channel journalist who had been on hunger strike for nearly five months to protest his detention. El-Shamy was seen outside the makeshift court at Torah Prison in southern Cairo on Monday, Ahram Online reporter said.

The Doha-based network says only nine of the 20 defendants are on its staff, including six among those tried in absentia.

Australia said on Monday it was "appalled" by the verdict against its national Greste.

"The Australian government is shocked at the verdict," AFP quoted Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as saying. "We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it."

Greste was found guilty despite Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's lobbying Egypt's new leader Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in the weekend for the release of the detained journalist.

Abbott said El-Sisi understood the situation.

“I assured him – as a former journalist myself – that Peter Greste would have been reporting the Muslim Brotherhood, not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood,” Abbott told the Seven Network on Monday, as quoted by Australian media.

"I think he understands that this would be a PR coup for the new government if Peter Greste is not dealt with severely," Abbott said, adding: "I made it as clearly as I could and I think he understood me."

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