CAIRO - Three Al-Jazeera journalists, including an Egyptian-Canadian, were sentenced to seven years in prison each on terrorism-related charges Monday in a verdict that stunned their families and was quickly denounced as a blow to freedom of expression.
Australia, Britain and the United States strongly condemned the sentencing of Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, with the White House calling for pardons or sentence commutations for the three journalists.
Ottawa reacted several hours after the verdicts were announced in a Cairo courtroom, with a junior minister responsible for consular affairs saying the government was "very disappointed" with the outcome of the trial.
Fahmy, who was Al-Jazeera English's acting Cairo bureau chief, was visibly shaken after the verdict.
"I swear they will pay for this," he shouted angrily from the defendants' cage.
The verdicts came after a five-month trial that Amnesty International described as a "sham," calling Monday's rulings "a dark day for media freedom in Egypt."
The three, who have been detained since December, contend they are being prosecuted simply for doing their jobs as journalists, covering Islamist protests against the ouster last year of president Mohammed Morsi. Three other foreign journalists, two Britons and a Dutch citizen, were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.
Media groups have said the trial is part of a fight between the government and the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, which authorities accuse of bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. The network denies any bias.
Prosecutors charged them with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist group, and with fabricating footage to undermine Egypt's national security and make it appear the country was facing civil war. But the prosecution presented little evidence in the trial.
"They just ruined a family," said Fahmy's brother Adel, who was attending the session. His mother and fiancee broke down in tears. "Who did he kill" to get this sentence? Fahmy's mother, Wafa Bassiouni shouted.
Fahmy's brother said they would appeal the verdict but added that he had little faith in the system. "Everything is corrupt," he said.
Fahmy — whose family moved to Canada in 1991 — lived in Montreal and Vancouver for years before eventually moving abroad for work, which included covering stories for the New York Times and CNN.
His family has previously praised the Canadian government, saying it had been working diplomatic channels to help win his release.
After Monday's verdict, however, Fahmy's other brother, Sherif, said Ottawa should take a clear and public stance.
"Call the Egyptian president... call the Egyptian ambassador in Canada, like Britain did today," he said.
"Do something that proves that you actually care for Mohamed, that is what I am asking them to do."
He also sent a tweet Monday morning that pointed the finger at Ottawa. "@pmharper I hold you responsible for leaving my brother to rotten in Egyptian prison. Was a call or a public statement that difficult?" He confirmed on CBC radio that the tweet was his.
Greste's brother Andrew said he was "gutted" and also vowed to appeal.
Canadian Ambassador David Drake, who attended the session, said he was disappointed at the verdict.
"We are digesting this... We have to put our faith in the judicial system. We don't understand this particular verdict."
In Canada, Lynne Yelich, Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular), echoed Drake's comments, calling on the Egyptian government to protect the rights of all individuals "including journalists."
"Canada is very disappointed with the verdict in the case of Mohamed Fahmy and is concerned that the judicial process that led to his verdict is inconsistent with Egypt's democratic aspirations," said the statement. "A fair and transparent legal system is a critical pillar of a future stable and democratic Egypt."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the journalist prosecutions were all the more disturbing because they come after a succession of prosecutions that are "incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance."
Earnest said the White House is calling for pardons or sentence commutations for the three journalists and for clemency in all politically motivated sentences.
Australian Foreign Minister Julia Bishop said, "We are all shocked by this verdict."
She said Egypt's government should "reflect what message is being sent to the world ... We are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle media freedoms."
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a former journalist, said Monday that he told Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi that the jailed Australian journalist is innocent of charges that he supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said he was "appalled."
Egypt's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it "strongly rejects any comment by any foreign party shedding doubt on the independence of Egyptian judiciary and its fair rulings."
The Egyptian prosecutors' office said the sentences were a "deterrent."
The three journalists received sentences of seven years each in a maximum security prison. Mohamed, the team's producer, received an extra three years for possession of ammunition. Al-Jazeera has said that charge was rooted in a spent shell found in his possession — a souvenir he'd picked up from protests.
Egypt's president has the power to commute the sentence or pardon the three journalists — but only after appeals are finished, a process that could take months. The three would remain in prison throughout the appeals, unless they win a separate "suspension of verdict" ruling. An appeal can grant them a retrial, but only if flaws in the court proceedings are found.
There were 14 other co-defendants in the case. Eight being tried in absentia each received 10-year prison sentences. Two of them were acquitted, including the son of Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of the co-defendants were students, arrested separately and accused of giving footage to the journalists.
The managing director of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English, Al Anstey, said in a statement that "not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them."
"To have detained them for 177 days is an outrage. To have sentenced them defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice," he said.
Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were arrested in December when police raided the Cairo hotel room they were using as an office. Police confiscated their equipment, computers and other items.
During the trial, prosecutors contended they would present fabricated footage aired by the defendants as evidence they aimed to undermine Egypt's security.
Instead, they presented some footage showing clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and police, but without any indication it was falsified. They also cited as evidence leaflets that the three had picked up at the protests. Mostly, they presented random video clips also found on the three that had nothing to do with the case — including a report on a veterinary hospital in Cairo, another on Christian life in Egypt and old footage of Greste from previous assignments elsewhere in Africa, including video of animals.
The defence also complained repeatedly that it did not have access to the prosecution evidence.
"The only reason these three men are in jail is because the Egyptian authorities don't like what they have to say," Amnesty International said in a statement. The group's observer at the trial, Philip Luther, said the prosecution "failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence linking the journalists to a terrorism organization or proving they had falsified news footage."
"Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice," said Luther.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentencing of the three Al-Jazeera journalists "chilling." He said he was voicing his concern to Egypt's foreign minister.
Foreign Minister John Baird has previously said he has discussed Fahmy's case with his Egyptian counterpart, but Canadian officials have warned Fahmy's family that the journalist's dual citizenship has placed limits on how much they can do.
NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar said Ottawa must raise Fahmy's case with the Egyptian authorities "at the highest level."
"Prime Minister Harper must contact President al-Sissi directly to condemn the persecution and prosecution of journalists in Egypt, and call for the immediate release of Mr. Fahmy."
Conservative MP Paul Calandra, the prime minister's parliamentary secretary, defended Ottawa's response, saying on CBC the government wanted to maintain a diplomatic balance.
"We want to make sure that we continue to have access to Mr. Fahmy, to continue to look after his health and well-being. We'll continue to do that as our main priority. We'll work with our allies. At the same time, Egypt is a sovereign state, and we have to work within the confines of that. We don't want to insult them."
--With files from The Canadian Press
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