An Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera TV journalists to three years in prison on Saturday for operating without a press license and broadcasting material harmful to Egypt, a case that has triggered an international outcry.
The verdict in a retrial was issued against Mohamed Fahmy, a naturalized Canadian who has given up his Egyptian citizenship, Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Peter Greste, an Australian who was deported in February.
Judge Hassan Farid said the defendants, dubbed the "Marriott Cell" by the local press because they worked out of a hotel belonging to that chain, "are not journalists and not members of the press syndicate" and broadcast with unlicensed equipment.
Baher received an additional six months in prison. The state news agency MENA said that extra time was handed down because he was in possession of a bullet at the time of his arrest.
The three men were originally sentenced to between seven to 10 years in prison on charges including spreading lies to help a terrorist organization, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood which the military toppled from power two years ago.
The three defendants denied all charges, calling them absurd, and rights advocates said their arrest was part of a wider crackdown on free speech since the army overthrew President Mohamed Mursi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, in July 2013 following mass unrest over his rule.
Speaking on Al Jazeera in reaction to Saturday\’s verdict, Greste said he was shocked at the scale of the sentence. "Words really don\’t do justice," he said. "To be given three-year sentences is outrageous. It is just devastating for me."
Fahmy and Mohamed, who had been released on bail in February after over a year in jail, were taken back into custody after the verdict, according to Fahmy\’s wife Marwa Omara. She was in tears after the sentences were read out.
"We will appeal this verdict and we hope it will be reversed. We are now going to be holding a series of meetings with government officials where we will be asking for Mr. Fahmy\’s immediate deportation to Canada," said Fahmy\’s lawyer Amal Clooney.
"His colleague Peter Greste was sent back to Australia; there is no reason why the same thing shouldn\’t happen in Mr. Fahmy\’s case."
Western governments have voiced concern for freedom of expression in Egypt since Mursi was ousted but have not taken concrete steps to promote democracy in Egypt, an important Middle East ally.
"Mohamed has been sentenced and all I can ask for now is for all his colleagues to stand by him and to keep calling for his release, but this is extremely unfair," said Fahmy\’s wife.
"I ask the Canadian government to extract him from here as he is a Canadian citizen and to deport him back to Canada. All what I am asking (for) is justice and fairness, for what happened with Peter to be applied to Mohamed."
Al Jazeera condemned the court\’s decision in a statement read by the channel\’s general director Mustafa Sawaq.
"This judgment is a new attack on the freedom of the press, and it’s a black day in the history of the Egyptian judiciary."
Human rights groups have accused the Egyptian government of rolling back freedoms won in the 2011 popular uprising that toppled veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Amnesty International called Saturday\’s verdict "farcical".
"The fact that two of these journalists are now facing time in jail following two grossly unfair trials makes a mockery of justice in Egypt," said Philip Luther, Amnesty\’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa.