Verdict on Al Jazeera scribes draconian: US

June 24, 2014 - 5:01:16 am
Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste (right), Mohamed Fahmy (centre) and Baher Mohamed standing in front of the judge’s bench during their trial in Cairo.

BAGHDAD/geneva: US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday condemned an Egyptian court’s “deeply disturbing” decision to sentence three Al Jazeera journalists to jail terms of at least seven years.

“Today’s conviction is obviously a chilling and draconian sentence,” Kerry told journalists during an unannounced visit to Baghdad, which came a day after he visited Egypt. He said he had “registered our serious displeasure” with Cairo. “Injustices like these simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward in the way that President Al Sisi and Foreign Minister Shoukri told me just yesterday that they aspire to see their country advance,” Kerry said, in a statement. “Egyptian society is stronger and sustainable when all of its citizens have a say and a stake in its success. Today’s verdicts fly in the face of the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the real rule of law.”

He said the trial “lacked many fundamental norms of due process” and added that he spoke with Shoukri again yesterday  “to make very clear our deep concerns about these convictions and sentences.”

Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy each got seven years, while Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed received two sentences — one for seven years and another for three. The verdict drew condemnation from governments around the world, UN officials and press freedom activists.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay slammed Egypt’s mass trials, which have led to at least 220 death sentences and seen journalists ordered to serve lengthy prison terms. “I believe these mass trials and death penalty convictions are obscene, and a complete travesty of justice,” Pillay said in a statement.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said she was “shocked and alarmed” by the sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists, including Australia’s Peter Greste, and 11 others sentenced in absentia to up to a decade in prison.

Those verdicts, along with the confirmation on Saturday by an Egyptian court of the death penalty for 183 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, are the latest in a line of court cases “rife with procedural irregularities and in breach with international human rights law,” Pillay said.

The journalists had been accused of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi by “spreading false news”. Such charges are “far too broad and vague,” Pillay said, insisting they “reinforce the belief that the real target is freedom of expression.”

“It is not a crime to carry a camera,” she said, adding: “It is not a crime to criticise the authorities or to interview people who hold unpopular views.” Pillay urged the authorities to “promptly release” all journalists and media employees jailed for doing their job. She also voiced alarm that for journalists, bloggers and activists in Egypt, “harrassment, detention and prosecution ... as well as violent attacks by unidentified assailants, have become commonplace.”

The charges against the journalists were based on Egypt’s anti-terrorism law, also used to bring convictions in two mass trials of more than 1,100 people in Minya earlier this year, resulting in more than 220 death sentences.

However, Egypt rejected foreign criticism of its judicial system and interference in its affairs after a court decision to sentence three Al Jazeera journalists. “The Egyptian foreign ministry strongly rejects any comment from a foreign party that casts doubt on the independence of the Egyptian judiciary and the justice of its verdicts,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. AFP

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