Cairo, June 23 (Reuters): Three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven years in jail by an Egyptian judge on Monday for aiding a “terrorist organisation”, drawing criticism from western governments who said the verdict undermined freedom of expression.
The three, who all denied the charge of working with the now banned Muslim Brotherhood, included Australian Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy, Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English.
The third defendant, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, was given an extra three years for possessing a single bullet at the hearing attended by western diplomats, some of whose governments summoned Egypt’s ambassadors over the case.
The men have been held at Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison for six months, with the case becoming a rallying point for rights groups and news organsiations around the world.
They were detained in late December and charged with helping “a terrorist group” — a reference to the Muslim brotherhood — by broadcasting lies that harmed national security and supplying money, equipment and information to a group of Egyptians.
The Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist group after the army deposed elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July following mass protests against his rule. The Brotherhood says it is a peaceful organisation.
Al Jazeera, whose Qatari owners back the Brotherhood and have been at odds with Egypt’s leadership since he was ousted, said the ruling defied “logic, sense and any semblance of justice”.
“There is only one sensible outcome now. For the verdict to be overturned, and justice to be recognised by Egypt,” Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said in a statement.
The courtroom quickly descended into chaos as the verdict was read out. Shaken and near tears, Greste’s brother Michael said:“This is terribly devastating. I am stunned, dumbstruck. I’ve no other words.”
The three men had looked upbeat as they entered the courtroom in handcuffs, waving at relatives who had earlier told journalists they expected them to be freed for lack of evidence.
One Dutch woman and two Britons were sentenced to 10 years in absentia on the same charges of aiding a “terrorist group”.