Al Jazeera Journalists
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Arrested: December 29, 2013
Status: Released / Pardoned
The arrest of the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt is one of the most high profile cases of arrested journalists the world has yet seen. This monumental case is a prime example of a ShowTrial between a government and a news agency. The trial included false allegations, prosecutorial misconduct, high-level political involvement of multiple nation-states and NGOs (including involvement of the US President and Secretary of State), and widespread media attention.
In total, eleven journalists were convicted in absentia, and three journalists, Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were convicted in country and were imprisoned in Egypt. After submitting an appeal, the three journalists were released from prison; Fahmy and Mohamed on bail and Greste due to deportation. However, all three of the journalists were found guilty by an Egyptian court and sentenced to three years in prison as a result of their retrial. This second verdict was met with outrage worldwide.
In a surprising statement in September 2015, the Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi announced that Fahey and Mohamed had been pardoned and ordered for release. Greste remains in his home country of Australia, continuing to seek a pardon from the Egyptian president for himself and six other journalists convicted in absentia.
Peter Greste is a dual Australian-Latvian citizen. He is an award winning foreign correspondent who has worked for the BBC, Reuters, and Al-Jazeera.
Mohamed Fahmy is an Egyptian-Canadian correspondent who served as Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief. He has also worked as a CNN producer in Egypt and senior producer with Alhurra Television. He has written two books, Baghdad Bound: An Interpreter’s Chronicles of the Iraq War and Egyptian Freedom Story.
Baher Mohamed was an up and coming journalist. After graduating from Cairo University in 2005 he worked for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, CNN, and Iran’s English-language Press TV. He joined Al-Jazeera in May of 2013 and has covered the mass opposition protests in Cairo.
The three Al-Jazeera journalists covered the military coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi during the summer of 2013. Months later, on December 29, 2013 all three were arrested in their hotel, accused of working with the Muslim Brotherhood. Other Al-Jazeera journalists were tried in absentia.
Initially, Greste was held in Tora prison while Fahmy and Mohamed were taken to Egypt’s highest security prison reserved for suspected terrorists, called Scorpion. In Scorpion, they were held in solitary confinement for over a month. After weeks of international pressure, the three were moved into the same cell.
The three were charged with aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news. From the beginning, there was no hiding the intentions of the prosecutors and an obviously one-sided so-called investigation. Investigators have been blatantly transparent in their intent. They asked the journalists, “What’s your opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood?” and “What do you think of ex-president Mohamed Morsi?”
The drama of the court case played out on television. A video of the journalists’ arrest was dramatically aired on Egyptian television with the soundtrack from Thor: The Dark World playing in the background. Greste was refused an interpreter for parts of the proceeding, and the three journalists were paraded through the court in white prison uniforms and held in a cage throughout the proceedings. The trial was presided over by a panel of three judges and was lead by Judge Mohamed Nagui, who wore sunglasses throughout the court proceedings.
“The prosecution presented irrelevant videos as evidence in court, they also presented videos, as evidence, in private to the trial judges. They demanded, from the defense, 1.2 million Egyptian pounds, or $180,000 USD, to see these secret videos.”
Amnesty International observed the whole trial and found that “the prosecution failed to produce a single shred of evidence.” Prosecutor’s presented irrelevant evidence including a pop video by Australian singer Gotye, Greste’s family photos, BBC podcast about Somalia, and a film about an Egyptian horse sanctuary. While the prosecution presented irrelevant videos as evidence in court, they also presented videos, as evidence, in private to the trial judges. They demanded, from the defense, 1.2 million Egyptian pounds, or $180,000 USD, to see these secret videos.
In total, the prosecution called eight witnesses to testify, only one of which was relevant to the case. He was an intelligence officer who confirmed the prosecution’s version of events through “serious investigations that he personally carried out and using his confidential sources.” These investigations and confidential sources were, of course, not revealed. Prosecutor’s claim that the journalists had endangered national security rested on the testimony of a committee of so-called experts from state television. Under cross-examination three of these experts said they did not know whether they had endangered national security.
The prosecution also included irrelevant defendants to the case who had no connection to Al-Jazeera. This included Rena Netjes, a Dutch freelancer who had tea with Mohamed Fahmy before his arrest and a group of six students and activists who had never met the journalists. They were initially told they were being arrested on different charges and were later added to this case. The evidence against the students were indecipherable recordings even the judge could not understand. Judge Nagui stated, “If anyone understands please let us know, because we don’t understand either.”
A prosecutor told Fahmy, “It’s just bad timing, this is all about Qatar and Al-Jazeera, nothing to do with you.”
Egyptians consider Al-Jazeera Arabic, based in Qatar, biased toward the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, there is distrust and anger towards the outlet. The journalists tried to emphasize their affiliation with Al-Jazeera English, not Arabic, but their efforts were in vain. During a cigarette break, a prosecutor told Fahmy, “It’s just bad timing, this is all about Qatar and Al-Jazeera, nothing to do with you.”
Despite the lack of any credible evidence and international public outrage from the United Nations, White House, and European Union, the journalists were denied bail and ultimately each sentenced to seven years in prison. Baher Mohamed was sentenced to an additional three years for a used bullet casing he had picked up during the protest. The journalists tried in absentia were sentenced to ten years.
Adding to the drama and theatrics of the case, the court stated, “the devil guided” the journalists to spread false news against Egypt.
CURRENT STATUS / AFTERMATH
Governments and human rights activists around the world condemned the original verdict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the verdict “chilling and draconian”. British foreign minister William Hague was “appalled”, and the UN stated there is “a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt.
The journalists appealed the verdict in a process that began on January 1, 2015. On February 1, 2015 Egyptian authorities deported Greste after 400 days in prison. Mohamed and Fahmy were later released on bail February 12, 2015 and were reunited with their families. Since imprisonment, the three journalists were awarded the Royal Television Society Award for their sacrifice for journalism.
At the end of their retrial on August 29, 2015, all three journalists were found guilty once again and were sentenced to three years in prison. Mohamed and Fahmy returned to Tora prison in Egypt, while Greste remained in Australia. The U.S. State Department released an official statement saying they were “deeply disappointed and concerned by the verdict” alongside many other nations and human rights groups.
In a surprising statement on September 23, 2015, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi announced that Fahmy and Mohamed were named on a decree pardoning 100 prisoners. They were released shortly afterward.
Greste remains in his home country of Australia, continuing to seek a pardon from the Egyptian president for himself and six other journalists convicted in absentia.