Vindictive verdict

June 24, 2014 - 7:01:31 am

The jailing of three Aljazeera journalists is not only a blow to press freedom but also a setback to the credibility of the Egyptian state.

Travesty of justice is a mild term to describe the prison sentences awarded to three journalists of Aljazeera English in Egypt. The trio was arrested last December and put through a judicial process that looked perfunctory in the least. They were convicted of collusion with Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organisation, and spreading rumours about the country.  Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy got seven years each, while Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed was sentenced to ten years.

The sentences prove that the rot in the judicial system of the most populous state in the Middle East has only worsened after the Arab Spring. Decades of rule by Hosni Mubarak had the judiciary compromised to the extent that major decisions were known to have been dictated from the presidential palace. The system was an adjunct of the government and an extension of the corrupt and inefficient governing structure.

After Mubarak was ousted by the Tahrir Revolution, anticipation of better days brought demands for a reform of the judiciary. Chaos reined in the period between the departure of Mubarak and arrival of Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi as the new president. The Islamist leader’s rule led to disenchantment among a large section of the population and Mursi was ousted by an Army led movement, which was actually a coup but not branded as such.

Egypt’s antiquated judicial system was for the world to see when Mursi was produced in court inside a cage meant to house the accused.  The jailing of the journalists has been condemned worldwide. Freedom of the Fourth Estate, an anathema in most authoritarian regimes, is alien in Egypt. Though the number of media outlets including newspapers and television channels is large, objectivity in journalism is sacrificed to the whims of the state.

Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were convicted on the basis of evidence that didn’t have anything to do with the charges. As evidence, the court was shown a documentary by Sky News Arabia on Arabian horses, a song by Australian singer Gotye, a BBC documentary from Somalia, and a press conference in Kenya. There was widespread criticism of the judgement. Aljazeera chief Mustafa Sawaq said in Doha: “We condemn... this kind of unjust verdict. ... We are shocked.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay urged a review of Egyptian laws. “Media employees trying to carry out their work in Egypt are now confronted by an extremely difficult and dangerous environment. They should be protected not prosecuted,” she said.

Convictions and death sentences based on mass trials had discredited Egypt’s judicial system. The latest verdict has once again laid bare the pedestrian attitude to jurisprudence of

the Egyptian state.