The imprisonment of journalists in Egypt on charges relating to terrorism, condemned as “a slap in the face” by family members, has provoked Foreign Secretary William Hague to summon the Egyptian ambassador in London for a meeting today.
The sentencing of Australian-born Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed to seven years each for charges relating to terrorism, has been met with widespread condemnation, not least from David Cameron who said he was “appalled”.
They were arrested in December as part of a crackdown on Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
There were 14 other co-defendants in the case, including two British journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane. Eight being tried in absentia each received 10-year prison sentences.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister is completely appalled by the guilty verdicts delivered today.
“We are particularly concerned about the reports of procedural issues during the trial, including that key prosecution evidence was not made available to the defence team.
“We will continue to raise this issue with the Egyptian government and urge them to review this case as a matter of urgency and demonstrate their commitment to freedom of expression.
“The Foreign Secretary raised this with the Egyptian foreign minister when he was visiting London in May.”
The Egyptian ambassador in London has been summoned to the Foreign Office to be informed of the UK’s displeasure about the case.
Mr Hague said: “I am appalled by the guilty verdicts handed down today against Egyptian and international journalists in Egypt. Amongst those found guilty were two British journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, who were being tried in absentia.
“British ministers and diplomats will continue to urge the Egyptian government to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression by reviewing this case as a matter of urgency and I have instructed officials to summon the Egyptian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today.”
The family of Mr Greste, who left Australia in 1991 to work as a freelancer for Reuters TV, CNN, WTN and the BBC, and subsequently worked with Al Jazeera, aired their shock and devastation on a dedicated Facebook page entitled ‘Free Peter Greste’.
“We are so devastated!,” they wrote. “Peter has received seven years. This is not the end. Please make noise, this is unjust and a slap in the face for freedom of speech and media.”
A demonstration calling for the journalists’ release was held outside the Egyptian embassy in London in February.
A letter was also sent from media outlets including BBC News, ITN, Sky, Reuters, NBC News and ABC News to Egyptian authorities calling for those detained to be set free.
The letter described Mr Greste as “a fine, upstanding correspondent who has proved his impartiality over many years, whichever of our organisations he has been working for, and in whichever country”.
It went on to say that Greste was being put on trial because of the Egyptian government’s decision on December 25 to add the Muslim Brotherhood to its list of terrorist organisations.
Mr Greste had written that when this happened ”it knocked the middle ground out of the discourse. When the other side, political or otherwise, is a ‘terrorist’, there is no neutral way… So, even talking to them becomes an act of treason, let alone broadcasting their news, however benign”.
Journalist Lindsey Hilsum, who reported from Egypt during the uprising known as the Arab Spring, said today’s verdict was “terrible”.
“I am reeling from this terrible verdict in #Egypt. Our colleagues are honourable journalists,” the Channel Four international editor wrote on Twitter.
“Some say we campaign more abt unjust imprisonment of journalists than others. But if we are silenced how will u know abt the rest?” (sic)
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the guilty verdicts were concerning and ” illustrative of a regime in Egypt that is unfairly treating journalists, students and political activists on a very wide scale”.
He added: “The British Government will continue to press our Egyptian counterparts to both urgently review this case and to demonstrate a much clearer and more consistent commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”
Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said her government, while respecting the independence of the judiciary in Egypt, was shocked by the verdict.
“We are deeply disappointed that a court could come to this decision and, quite frankly, we simply do not understand how a court could come to this decision based on the evidence of which we were aware,” Ms Bishop told press gathered after the verdicts on Monday.
In a statement on the news organisation’s website, Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said the sentencing of the journalists defied any “logic, sense, and any semblance of justice”.
“Today three colleagues and friends were sentenced, and will continue to be kept behind bars for doing a brilliant job of being great journalists,” said Mr Anstey. “‘Guilty’ of covering stories with great skill and integrity. ‘Guilty’ of defending people’s right to know what is going on in their world.”
Human rights organisation Amnesty International and Index, which champions the right to freedom of expression, both added their condemnation to the verdicts.
Middle East and North Africa director for Amnesty Philip Luther said the sentencing represented a dark day for freedom of the press in Egypt, while Index chief executive Jodie Ginsberg called the verdicts “disgraceful”.
Claiming that at least 14 journalists remain in detention in Egypt and some 200 members of the press are in jails around the world, Ms Ginsberg said concerns are growing over the safety of media representatives across the globe.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “Governments must not be allowed to deny journalists, wherever they are, the right to be able to report independently and in safety. The freedom of journalists is an integral part of any democratic process.”
The hashtags #journalismisnotacrime and #FreeAJStaff were trending on Twitter after the verdicts came through.
Shadow foreign office minister Ian Lucas said: “Reports that Egyptian and international journalists, including British journalists tried in absentia, have been sentenced to up to ten years imprisonment in Egypt are deeply disappointing and very concerning.
“Freedom of expression is fundamental to any properly functioning democracy, and this troubling verdict comes amidst growing concerns about the operation of a free press within Egypt.
“The UK Government was right to summon the Egyptian ambassador, but must now also make a direct appeal to President Sisi to account for the outcome of this case and immediately answer the serious questions raised by it about press freedom and the rule of law.”
James Harding, director of BBC News and Current Affairs, said: “This verdict is both appalling and preposterously unjust. It is an act of intimidation against all journalists.
“This verdict robs three innocent men of their freedom. There is no evidence to support the claims made against them. Indeed, the claims themselves seem designed to prevent journalists from investigating and reporting the news in Egypt.
“As such, the authorities are seeking to scare other journalists and news organisations into muting their coverage of Egypt.”