Al Jazeera television journalists Mohamed Fahmy, C, and Baher Mohamed, L, talk to the media with lawyer Amal Clooney, 2nd R, Troy Lulashnyk, R, Canadian Ambassador to Egypt, before hearing the verdict at a court in Cairo, Egypt, August 29, 2015 (Reuters)
The jail terms handed down to three Al-Jazeera journalists at their retrial in Cairo on Saturday have stirred international criticism.
The court sentenced six defendants, including the three journalists and three students, to three years in prison in a retrial of a notorious case that has been in and out of global headlines since the journalists were arrested in 2013.
Journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were taken into custody after the hearing. Australian Peter Greste was sentenced in absentia.
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. The guilty verdicts can be appealed.
Prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney, an advocate for former Al-Jazeera bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, told reporters in press statements following the verdict that she is going to request a presidential pardon for the three journalists.
“There is a solution. President Sisi has said from the beginning of this case that he wishes the prosecution has never been brought and that he would intervene at the end of the judicial process and will grant a pardon if the journalists were convicted. That’s exactly what just happened,” Clooney said.
In June 2014, Egypt President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said that Egypt's authorities "will not interfere in judicial matters” following the first trial where the defendants were sentenced to between seven and ten years in jail.
One of the defendants, Peter Greste, was deported in February 2015 under the terms of a presidential decree issued by El-Sisi the previous year which allows foreign nationals to continue their pretrial detention or post-trial prison sentences in their home countries.
Fahmy, who is Egyptian-Canadian, renounced his Egyptian citizenship in an attempt to secure deportation.
“Shocked. Outraged. Angry. Upset. None of them convey how I feel right now. 3 yr sentences for Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and me is so wrong,” Greste, who was sentenced in absentia, wrote on his Twitter account.
A Canadian government official responded to the verdict by calling for the immediate release of Mohamed Fahmy, AP reported.
Canadian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Consular Matters Lynne Yelich issued a statement Saturday after the court verdict. She said the court's decision "severely undermines confidence in the rule of law in Egypt."
Yelich said: "The government of Canada continues to call on the Egyptian government to use all tools at its disposal to resolve Mr. Fahmy's case and allow his immediate return to Canada."
Britain's Minister for Middle East and North Africa, Tobias Ellwood, also condemned the ruling, arguing that "these sentences will undermine confidence in Egypt's progress towards strong, long-term stability based on implementing the rights granted by the Egyptian constitution."
"We have repeatedly raised this case and the restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt with ministers and senior officials. We note that the case can be appealed, and will monitor future developments closely," he added.
The British ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, who attended the session, commented on the sentences, saying that the country's stability should not be built on a "shaky foundation which deprives people of their rights and undermines the freedom of the press and freedom of expression."
Casson added that the UK still supports the "new Egypt" and the country's stability.
Al-Jazeera has also condemned the rulings, with the network's executive director, Mustafa Soueg, saying that the verdict "defies logic and commons sense."
"There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organisations, and at no point during the long drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny," he said in a statement.
"A report issued by a technical committee assigned by the court in Egypt contradicted the accusations made by the public prosecutor and stated in its report that the seized videos were not fabricated," he added.
In a statement on Saturday, the director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa programme, Philip Luther, described the trial and retrial as “grossly unfair” and describing Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy as “prisoners of conscience.”