Verdict in Al Jazeera case test of Egypt’s commitment to human rights
A ruling expected this week in the retrial of three Al Jazeera journalists on terrorism charges will serve as a test of Egypt’s commitment to human rights, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.
An Egyptian court had previously announced it would reach a final verdict on July 30 in the case against former Al Jazeera English Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed after the case was adjourned on eight previous occasions. A third Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste, is being tried in absentia on the same terrorism charges.
Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed were arrested in December 2013 and charged with aiding the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, spreading “false news” and airing falsified footage intended to damage Egyptian national security. Cameraman Mohamed Fawzy was arrested along with them, but was later released.
After being convicted in an initial trial, the three men received seven, seven and 10-year prison sentences, respectively, and spent over 400 days in prison before being released in February 2015. An Egyptian court ordered a retrial on January 1, 2015 after it found procedural flaws in the initial case.
IPI today also called on the Egyptian authorities to pardon six other Al Jazeera journalists – Mohamed Fawzy, Sue Turton, Dominic Kane, Alaa Bayoumi, Anas Abdel-Wahab Khalawi Hasan, Khaleel Aly Khaleel Bahnasy – as well as Dutch reporter Rena Netjes, who is not affiliated with Al Jazeera, who were sentenced in absentia to 10 years on terrorism charges in June 2014. Due to their convictions, these journalists currently face travel bans and arrest warrants in numerous countries, including several that have extradition agreements with Egypt.
Greste, an Australian citizen, was released and deported to Australia on February 1, 2015 under a new presidential decree allowing foreigners charged with terrorist-related crimes to be deported.
He worked for Reuters and the BBC before joining Al Jazeera, and has worked as a correspondentin various locations around the world, including Bosnia, South Africa, Afghanistan, Mexico, Kenya and the Middle East.
Egyptian national Baher Mohamed joined Al Jazeera in May 2013 and covered the mass protests in Cairo on June 30 of that year that led to the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.
Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-born Canadian, had reported extensively on events in the Middle East and North Africa before joining Al Jazeera in 2013 as its bureau chief based in Egypt. In 2014, he was honoured by the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom with its annual award.
Fahmy renounced his Egyptian citizenship at the beginning of February 2015 in hopes of being released and deported to Canada, similar to Greste. However, Fahmy remained in prison with Mohamed until the two were released on bail on February 13, nearly two weeks after Greste’s deportation.
While Greste is being tried in absentia, Fahmy and Mohamed could face actual prison time if convicted in the retrial. Fahmy’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, is said to be preparing a written deportation and pardon request in case of conviction.
The journalists and their lawyers have vigorously argued in court they are not guilty of any criminal offence or association with the Muslim Brotherhood and that all of the charges against them are baseless and lack justification. They have insisted that they were simply doing their jobs as reporters.
The high-profile case has sparked an international outcry, with numerous press freedom and human rights organisations demanding that charges against the three Al Jazeera journalists be dropped. It has even gained the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, who last year called on Egypt for their release.
The journalists who were separately convicted in absentia have been slapped with travel bans not only for Egypt, but for several other countries in Africa and the Middle East as well. Sue Turton recently left Al Jazeera to become a freelancer because the travel restrictions brought on by her conviction had made it “increasingly difficult” to do her job.
“We know the situation judicially is not getting any better, in fact it’s getting worse,” she told IPI.
Turton and the other convicted journalists face arrest warrants in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. She told IPI that all they can hope for is a pardon from the Egyptian courts.
“The one thing that we’re hoping is that all the bodies and all the diplomats and all the politicians around the world who recognise that we should never have been convicted in the first place will step up and really argue on our behalf that there has to be a pardon here,” said Turton. “It’s not fair on us to carry this for the rest of our lives.”
Al Jazeera cameraman Mohamed Fawzy, an Egyptian national, is barred from returning to his own country and cannot travel to Kuwait to visit family members, colleagues say.
Since the ouster of Morsi in 2013, the situation of press freedom in Egypt has drastically deteriorated. Despite constitutional protection for free speech, Egypt has increasingly moved to punish, intimidate and censor critical voices in the media, frequently under the guise of protecting national security.
In February 2014, IPI conducted a five-day emergency mission to Cairo to assess Egypt’s media environment after Morsi’s removal. In its mission report, IPI urged Egypt to abide by constitutional amendments guaranteeing press freedom, freedom of publication and the independence of news media and that included protections against censorship, confiscation, suspension and closure of news media.
However, over a dozen journalists still remain behind bars in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt. A recent census conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that Egypt is holding a record-high number of jailed journalists in relation to their work.
A newly proposed anti-terrorism bill included an article threatening journalists with a two-year prison sentence for reporting information, particularly death tolls, contradictory to official figures. After sparking backlash from Egyptian media workers, the punishment was reduced to a fine ranging from 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately 23,000 to 59,000 euros). The legislation was passed by the Cabinet and Council of State and awaits approval from President al-Sisi.
Amnesty International blasted the article for “weaken[ing] safeguards to ensure fair trials and widen[ing] the use of the death penalty”.
Several press freedom campaigns have since emerged, including Al Jazeera’s #FreeAJStaff campaign.
IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen said this week’s verdict would be a bellwether for the future of press freedom in Egypt.
“IPI and observers from around the world will be closely watching the outcome of this case, which is a crucial test of Egypt’s commitment to the respect of due process and of fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression,” he said.
“We urge the court to acquit all three journalists in their retrial and to send a clear message that no media professional, Egyptian or foreign, should face prosecution – much less imprisonment – for doing his or her job.”