(AFP) – An Egyptian court sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists including Australia’s Peter Greste to jail terms from seven to 10 years Monday in a verdict denounced internationally as “appalling” and “unjust”.
Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy each got seven years, while producer Baher Mohamed received two sentences — one for seven years and another for three.
Eleven defendants tried in absentia, including one Dutch journalist and two British journalists, were given 10-year sentences.
The trial had provoked an international outcry and raised fears of growing media restrictions in Egypt.
“The Australian government is shocked at the verdict,” Canberra’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said.
“We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it.
“It is hard to credit that the court in this case could have reached this conclusion,” she added.
“The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case.”
Al-Jazeera chief Mustafa Sawaq said in Doha: “We condemn… this kind of unjust verdict. … We are shocked.”
“To have sentenced them defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice,” added Al-Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey.
Greste’s brother Andrew said he was devastated.
“It is definitely not what we were expecting. I was hoping for acquittal… we will continue to fight for his freedom,” he said.
– Egyptian ambassadors summoned –
In The Hague, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said he had summoned the Egyptian ambassador and would raise this matter with his EU colleagues after Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, tried in absentia, “did not get a fair trial”.
London also said it was summoning Cairo’s envoy, and David Cameron’s spokesman said the premier was “completely appalled” by the verdicts issued in absentia against two British journalists working for Al-Jazeera.
Amnesty International’s Philip Luther said: “This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt.”
Of the six defendants in custody along with Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed, four were sentenced to seven years and two were acquitted.
“They will pay for this, they will pay for this. I promise!” Fahmy shouted from the dock after the verdict was announced.
While defendants can appeal, a presidency official said President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “legally can’t (pardon them)… a pardon can be given only after the final court ruling”.
All of the defendants had been accused of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi by “spreading false news”.
Since the army ousted Morsi in July 2013, the authorities have been incensed by the Qatari network’s coverage of their deadly crackdown on his supporters.
They consider Al-Jazeera to be the voice of Qatar, and accuse Doha of backing Morsi’s Brotherhood, while the emirate openly denounces the repression of the Islamist movement’s supporters which has killed more than 1,400 people.
– ‘There is no justice’ –
Defence lawyer Shaaban Saeed denounced the ruling.
“There is no evidence against the defendants. All journalists should fear for themselves now that there is no justice. Politics is the master,” he said.
Al-Jazeera says only nine of the 20 defendants are on its staff, including the two British reporters based abroad.
Sixteen defendants are Egyptians who were accused of belonging to the Brotherhood, which the authorities designated a “terrorist organisation” in December.
The four foreigners — Greste, Netjes and Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane — were alleged to have collaborated with and assisted their Egyptian co-defendants by providing media material, as well as editing and broadcasting it.
The authorities also say the accused journalists were operating without valid accreditation.
Sisi, sworn in as president on June 8, has said he intends to return Egypt to stability rather than encourage democratic reforms.
Prosecutors had demanded the maximum penalty for all defendants: the 16 Egyptians could have been jailed for 25 years and the foreigners for 15.
The defendants had denounced the trial as “unfair and political”, charging that evidence had been “fabricated”.
Prosecutors showed video from a tourism report not even produced by Al-Jazeera, and images and audio recordings in which the defendants were alleged to have falsely portrayed a “civil war”.
Greste and Fahmy were arrested in a Cairo hotel on December 29 after the channel’s office was raided by police.
The award-winning Greste formerly worked with the BBC and Fahmy, the Cairo bureau chief of Al-Jazeera English who previously worked with CNN, has no known Brotherhood ties.