Egypt Sentences Journalists to 7 Years in Prison; Amnesty Int'l Calls Verdict a 'Sham'

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(Photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)Foreign journalists and relatives of Al-Jazeera journalists walk near a police vehicle outside Cairo's Tora prison, where the trial of Al Jazeera journalists and other foreign media is due to take place, February 20, 2014.

Three reporters from the Al Jazeera media network have been sentenced to prison in Egypt, sparking an international outcry from family members and groups like Amnesty International, who call the sentencing a "sham."

An Egyptian court sentenced the three Al Jazeera journalists to seven years in prison, each on terrorism charges related to the ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

The court determined the three defendants, Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed, were guilty of showing bias for Morsi during civilian protests and his ousting from power last year. Along with the seven-year sentence, Mohammed, a producer for the Al Jazeera network, received an additional three years for a second charge.

Witnesses at the five-month trial have described the court case as a political fight between the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera media outlet and Egypt's security forces. As CNN reports, Qatar has long been accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party affiliated with Morsi that has been labeled a terrorist group by several governments, including Egypt's security forces. Therefore, prosecutors in the case have accused Al Jazeera of "broadcasting false information" to harm the country's national security and support the Muslim Brotherhood.

Monday's sentencing has been decried by international groups and journalists as evidence that Egypt's government is unwilling to promote freedom of the media in its country. In an interview with Al Jazeera following the verdict, Amnesty International Director Steve Crawshaw said the court made an "outrageous ruling" and said that the decision is an "absolute affront to justice."

Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement that "this is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or 'terrorists' simply for doing their job."

"The only reason these three men are in jail is because the Egyptian authorities don't like what they have to say. They are prisoners of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released. In Egypt today anyone who dares to challenge the state's narrative is considered a legitimate target."

"The trial was a complete sham. Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice," Luther added.

Lawyers for the journalists maintain that the reporters were just doing their job in covering the Morsi overthrow. "Mohammed, Baher, and Peter are first class journalists," Al Jazeera English Managing Director Al Anstey said in a statement earlier this year, after the men's detainment in December. "They were just doing their job covering and challenging all sides of the story in Egypt."

The U.S. and the United Nations have also condemned Monday's ruling as being unjust. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that he had contacted the country's foreign minister to express his displeasure with the "chilling and draconian verdict."

United Nations Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay said that this recent ruling possibly shows Egypt's unwillingness to become a true democracy. "Egypt's reputation, and especially the reputation of its judiciary as an independent institution, are at stake," Navi Pillay said. "There is a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt."

Family members of the journalists have vowed to appeal Monday's ruling. Egypt's newly elected President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who formerly served as the country's field marshal, has the power to pardon the three journalists, but only after the appeals process is over. The appeals process could take months.