Outside the Egyptian Embassy
Yesterday was the first anniversary of the arrest and incarceration of three al-Jazeera journalists in Cairo. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were charged with broadcasting false news and aiding a 'terrorist organisation' (the Muslim Brotherhood). Al-Jazeera rejects the charges.
'They’re not terrorists, they’re journalists,' Lindsey Hilsum, the Channel 4 News international editor, told me at a protest outside the Egyptian embassy in London. 'Everybody knows that. President El-Sisi knows that. It’s completely insane that they’re still in prison.'
'I feel a great sense of injustice,' Mohamed's wife Jehan said by phone from Cairo. 'We were supposed to celebrate the birth of our child together, four months ago.'
In June, the three journalists were given seven-year sentences; Mohamed received an additional three years for possessing a spent bullet cartridge. His wife says it was a souvenir he collected from covering the war in Libya. Two British al-Jazeera journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, along with Rana Nejtes, a Dutch reporter who isn't employed by the channel, were sentenced to ten years each in absentia.
Amnesty International described the ruling as a 'ferocious attack on media freedom' and considers the journalists prisoners of conscience. Amnesty’s trial observer recorded
several irregularities and examples of complete ineptitude during the proceedings. In 12 court sessions, the prosecution failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence linking the journalists to a terrorism organisation or proving they had 'falsified' news footage.
Lamees El-Hadidi, a pro-regime television host, wrote an op-ed in the daily al-Masry al-Youm criticising the ruling, along with the mass death sentences handed down to supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, as 'disastrous' for Egypt internationally.
Many observers view the arrests as part of a diplomatic row between the Sisi regime and Qatar, which funds al-Jazeera and supported the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent weeks, there has been a thawing of relations after months of mediation efforts by Saudi Arabia. 'Egypt looks forward to a new era that ends past disagreements,' Sisi’s office said after the president met a special envoy of the Qatari emir on 20 December.
The crackdown on 'Islamists' since Morsi’s ouster has resulted in at least 16,000 arrests, according to official figures; activists say the true figure is over 40,000. In July and August 2013 security forces killed at least 1150 demonstrators. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have said that Egypt is 'in the midst of a human rights crisis as dire as in any period in the country’s modern history'. Egypt says it is fighting a 'war on terror', particularly since the rise of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which in November pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of high profile attacks, including an assassination attempt on the interior minister in Cairo, the shooting down of an army helicopter, and bomb attacks on police stations and a pipeline that used to send natural gas to Israel.
There are 16 journalists in jail in Egypt, according to Reporters without Borders. Only China, Eritrea and Iran have imprisoned more. 'Our profession is going through a dreadful time,' Turton said. She has been a war correspondent, for Sky and Channel 4 News as well as al-Jazeera, for over two decades. 'The guys incarcerated, colleagues who have been beheaded by Isis – I look back and think that could have so easily been me.'
On 1 January, Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed will be at the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest legal authority. The court will decide whether there are grounds for appeal. If there are, a retrial could last another year. If the appeal is rejected, there is a law that allows for the deportation of foreigners convicted of crimes on Egyptian soil. This could be a way out for Greste (who is Australian) and Fahmy (Canadian), but not Mohamed. 'We’re positively cautious,' said Marwa Omara, Fahmy’s fiancée, by phone from Cairo. 'It’s been a very hard year.'
Fahmy has hepatitis C, and a shoulder injury that got worse in prison. Mohamed has toothache which his wife says hasn’t been treated. 'Even your most basic human desires are denied to you in prison,' Jehan said. 'Just yesterday Baher was telling me that he couldn’t eat the meat provided as food, because of how foul it smelled. So he gave it to the cat to eat, and even the cat rejected it.'