Tuesday, June 24, 2014 10:53 am
CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s president said Tuesday the authorities will not interfere in the judiciary, as protests were staged worldwide in solidarity with Al-Jazeera journalists, including an Australian, whose jailing has sparked outrage.
The United States is leading calls for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to pardon the journalists convicted of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood movement and “spreading false news”.
A Cairo court sentenced award-winning Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy to seven years in jail on Monday, while producer Baher Mohamed was handed 10 years.
Eleven of 20 defendants who stood trial were giving 10-year sentences in absentia, including one Dutch journalist and two British journalists. Those sentenced can appeal before the court of cassation.
Since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Egyptian authorities have been incensed by Al-Jazeera’s coverage of their deadly crackdown on his supporters.
They consider the pan-Arab satellite network as the voice of Qatar, and accuse Doha of backing Morsi’s Brotherhood, while the emirate openly denounces the repression of the Islamist supporters.
Sisi, the ex-army chief who led Morsi’s ouster before being elected president in May, said the authorities “will not interfere in judicial matters”.
“We have to respect judiciary rulings, and not comment them even if others don’t understand them,” he said in a televised speech.
Sisi’s comments came a day after the White House urged the Egyptian authorities to pardon the journalists.
But a presidency official told AFP Sisi cannot legally do so until a final court ruling after any appeals.
– ‘Journalism not a crime’ –
Monday’s ruling sparked an international outcry, with US Secretary of State John Kerry denouncing “a chilling and draconian sentence”.
Greste’s shattered parents vowed to keep fighting for press freedom as Australia urged Sisi to issue a pardon.
“This is a very dark time not only for our family, but for journalism generally,” his father Juris said in Brisbane. “The campaign for media freedom and free speech must never end. Journalism is not a crime.”
Al-Jazeera, whose journalists had been working in Cairo without official accreditation, condemned the verdict as “unjust”.
Journalists around the world demonstrated Tuesday in solidarity with those jailed, including staff at the London headquarters of the BBC, Greste’s former employer, and reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.
“The verdict is unjust, the case is unfounded,” BBC news director James Harding told the gathering, before a one-minute silent protest was observed exactly 24 hours after the sentencing.
France on Tuesday joined Britain and the Netherlands in summoning the Egyptian ambassadors, after UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said she was “shocked and alarmed” by the ruling.
Amnesty International also spoke of a “dark day for media freedom in Egypt”, and Human Rights Watch said the verdict showed “how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi”.
But reactions remained limited to verbal objections, as no Western capital can afford severing ties with Egypt, the first Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel and a strategic US ally in the Middle East.
A day before the ruling, US officials announced that $572 million (420 million euros) in aid, frozen since October, had been released to Egypt after a green light from Congress.
The Al-Jazeera ruling is the latest issue in Egypt to concern human rights groups since a 2011 uprising toppled long-time autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.
And since Morsi’s ouster on July 3 last year, political unrest has reached unprecedented levels in Egypt, with more than 1,400 people killed and at least 15,000 jailed in a government crackdown.
– ‘McCarthyist climate’ –
Hundreds have also been sentenced to death in speedy mass trials and dozens of youth activists who spearheaded the 2011 uprising have been handed jail terms, with the authorities being accused of using the judiciary as a blunt tool of repression.
“Many judges believe the state was threatened” during Morsi’s single year of rule, said Hassan Nafaa, a political professor at Cairo University. “They are taking their revenge today with harsh and unjustified verdicts.”
Middle East expert Karim Bittar told AFP the “rulings confirm that Egypt is living in a purely McCarthyist climate”.
In Egypt, however, the Al-Jazeera rulings drew limited criticism, with newspapers on Tuesday speaking of verdicts against “terrorists” accused of “tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad”.
The few voices denouncing the court’s decision were to be found on social media networks.
“Seven-10 years in jail for journalists. Mubarak got 3 years for 30 years of corruption,” a well-known blogger known as The Big Pharaoh said on Twitter.