Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Jazeera case to end?

International condemnation of jail sentences handed to three Al-Jazeera journalists adds to domestic pressure to end the case once and for all, writes
Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

The local media, obsessed with Amal Clooney’s appearance at a Cairo court to represent Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmi on Saturday, tended to gloss over the strongly worded statements issued by western governments, the European Union, the United Nations, the UN Human Rights Council and press and human rights organisations condemning the three-year jail term he received along with his co-defendants Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. The three were convicted of disseminating false information harmful to Egypt’s interests and of working illegally in Egypt.

Yet the international reaction, which ranged from expressions of disappointment to outright condemnation, has increased local demands to draw a line under a case that has been rumbling on for the best part of two years.

The quickest way to end it would be for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to exercise his prerogative to pardon the defendants now that they have been issued final sentences. An alternative course of action would be to immediately deport Fahmi, who holds dual Canadian/Egyptian nationality, as happened to Greste who was sent back to Australia in February after spending 400 days in prison. The second course, though, would leave the authorities open to accusations of bias given four Egyptian nationals have been convicted in the same case.

Deteriorating relations between Egypt and Qatar, which sponsors Al-Jazeera, are likely to complicate any moves towards a presidential pardon in a case that began in December 2013 when police arrested Australian reporter Greste and his producer Fahmi at the Marriott hotel in Zamalek. Baher Mohamed was subsequently taken into detention from his home. All three were charged with aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, a designated terrorist group, and of tarnishing Egypt’s image. During the sentencing on 29 August Mohamed received an additional six months in prison for the illegal possession of a bullet.

Al-Jazeera, once seen as an independent and outspoken television channel, gradually morphed into a biased media outlet serving the interests of the oil-rich state of Qatar in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Qatar openly supports the Muslim Brotherhood and opposed the army’s intervention two years ago to remove Mohamed Morsi.  Most commentators see the legal travails of the Al-Jazeera reporters as a reflection of deteriorating relations between Egypt and Qatar and a symptom of the crackdown on press freedom as the authorities pursue their war on terror.

Twenty defendants were originally referred to trial. They included one Dutch and two British nationals working for Al-Jazeera International. In June 2014 Judge Nagi Shehata sentenced Greste and Fahmi to seven years in prison and Baher to 10. Eleven defendants were tried in absentia, including the British and Dutch nationals. They were handed 10-year sentences.

In mid-November Al-Sisi issued a decree under which the president could deport foreign nationals being tried in Egypt at any point during the legal proceedings. Most observers argued the decree was tailored to allow Greste to be returned to Australia, a suspicion that appeared to be confirmed when, on 1 February, Greste was taken to Cairo Airport. Fahmi was told by security officials that he should relinquish his Egyptian nationality if he wanted to receive the same treatment as Greste and be deported to Canada.

Lawyers appealed the sentences and a new trial opened on 12 February. The remaining defendants were heartened when, after spending 14 months in jail, Judge Hassan Farid ordered their release on bail of LE250, 000. What promises Fahmi had received regarding his deportation, however, seemed to have evaporated.

During Saturday’s verdict, when Fahmi, Mohamed and their four co-defendants learned they would be returning to prison and Fahmi’s wife, Marwa Omara, collapsed in tears, the dozens of reporters who filled the courtroom almost trampled one another while chasing Fahmi’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, the leading human rights lawyer who is married to actor George Clooney.

One popular news website, Al-Youm Al-Sabei, ran a news item on Clooney’s diamond ring. Others seemed to be most concerned with the cost of the Armani suit she was wearing.

Omara and Clooney met Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb on Sunday, “for a few minutes only”, according to cabinet spokesman, Hossam Kawish. He denied that the two requested a pardon from Mehleb, saying they knew that such decision could only be made by the president. Kawish sought to downplay the meeting, telling local television channel Ten Network there wouldn’t have been such widespread interest “had the lawyer not been the wife of famous American actor George Clooney”. He added that Clooney had only asked to be allowed to visit her client in prison and deliver medicine that he needed because of problems with his kidneys.

The British Ambassador to Egypt John Casson came under attack by the local media, and hashtags were created on Twitter calling for his deportation, after he expressed “shock and deep concern” at the verdicts. Casson, who speaks Arabic fluently, told local television channels that “Britain actively supports stability in Egypt in deeds and not just in words”.

“But the important question is: will this stability be fragile and temporary, based on restricting media freedom, freedom of expression, and depriving individuals from their rights stated in the Egyptian Constitution; or are we going to build a strong and long-term stability based on freedom of expression and media according to the rule of law that applies to everyone, regardless of any political agendas or interests?”

Casson was summoned to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday and told his comments were an “unacceptable interference in Egypt’s independent judicial system”.

Leading columnists known for their support of Al-Sisi have been advising the government to end the case as quickly as possible, either through issuing a presidential pardon or deporting Fahmi to Canada.

Diaa Rashwan, former head of the Press Syndicate, says the case had been widely used by Al-Jazeera to distort Egypt’s image abroad and support claims of a clampdown on press freedoms.

Echoing Clooney, Rashwan drew attention to a statement made by Al-Sisi following the first trial of the journalists in which he said he would have preferred the case never to have gone to trial. Rashwan also recalled how Fahmi had turned against Al-Jazeera following his release from prison in February, accusing the television channel of pursuing its own political agenda regardless of how this might affect its employees.  

Fahmi is suing Al-Jazeera in Canada for damages. The channel, he says, did not inform its employees in Cairo that they were working without legal permits.

“There have been political miscalculations over the case from day one,” says Rashwan. “There were many alternatives to bringing the case to trial and they would have been preferable. I have been told as much by security officials when I repeatedly tried to intervene in my capacity as head of the Press Syndicate.”

The government “should not have fallen into the trap set by Al-Jazeera which doesn’t care at all about sacrificing its staff if by doing so it can score propaganda goals under the banner of protecting press freedom in Egypt”.

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