Egyptian Court Sentences Al Jazeera Reporters To Prison

Two journalists in Cairo got seven years in prison and third received 10 years. Egypt's government accused them of helping the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Two journalists in Cairo got seven years in prison, a third received a full decade. Egypt's government accused the three of helping terrorists, by which the government means the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The journalists worked for the satellite channel Al Jazeera. They say they were simply reporting news independently and that's what Egypt wants to shut down. Many news organizations, including NPR News, objected to their imprisonment. Now the verdict - NPR's Leila Fadel was in the courtroom, she's on the line from Cairo. Leila, what was it like when this ruling was delivered?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It was a devastating scene in the courtroom today. The family of the journalists letting out a collective gasp, bursting into tears, shocked that their children, that their brothers, that their loved ones will now spend much of their life, seven to ten years of their life, in jail for basically doing the jobs of what we all do as journalists. So it was really a devastating moment, really shocking, and the defendants themselves who were excited and hopeful that they would be out today or tomorrow now may be in jail for much longer.

INSKEEP: Now, they were working for Al Jazeera, this satellite channel that's based in Qatar. Who exactly are they? The Egyptians, they others?

FADEL: There's an Egyptian-Canadian, Mohamed Fahmy, an Australian journalist, Peter Greste, who's not even based in Egypt and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian journalists as well. So those three men are all going to be in jail for a while. The family says that they will appeal, that this is an unfair and corrupt decision by the court - a politicized decision by the court - and they're very, very upset, very devastated by the news today.

INSKEEP: I want to understand as best as I can what the case was that the Egyptian government made, Leila Fadel. There was evidence at trial here. Was there evidence put forth that they engaged in some terrorist act or was it really simply that they said whatever they said on the air?

FADEL: There was no evidence of the crimes that they're accused of. We sat in this session every single day, 13 sessions in which we watched them play regular video, we put pictures up of family members on their computers. We saw no evidence of them actually breaking laws at this level. And so that's what's so shocking today, that although they're accused of something so horrendous, zero evidence was presented to show them as anything other than journalists.

INSKEEP: Were there closing arguments in this Egyptian trial as there would be in an American trial? And if so, what did the prosecutor say to sum up the case?

FADEL: Well, basically they said that they've proven their case, which we didn't see. And then the judge ultimately decided their fate today. Again, the family is going to appeal, but there was no evidence and that's what was so upsetting, to watch the defendants bang against the cage really shocked because they thought, well, if it's based on evidence then we'll definitely get out here.

INSKEEP: You said something about a cage, were the defendants in a cage for this trial?

FADEL: In typical fashion here in Egypt, defendants are put into a prosecution cage in every Egyptian courtroom. And so each day that they come into court, they're put into a cage and sort of yelling at journalists within the courtroom what they want to say from there. Today, we couldn't even hear Mohamed Fahmy, who was yelling something to us, but we couldn't hear him as police dragged him away so clearly angry banging against the mesh bars.

INSKEEP: Now, one other thing just so I understand, we've only got about 30 seconds left, Leila Fadel, is this taken as a serious verdict, meaning that people seriously believe that these journalists could spend seven or more years in prison?

FADEL: Of course it's a very serious verdict, but lawyers say that it is possible that on appeal they will be able to overturn this. And many are hoping that the new president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, will possibly pardon them as a show of good faith, as evidence that freedom of speech is actually valued in the new Egypt.

INSKEEP: OK, Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel reporting from Cairo, where three journalists have received seven years or more in prison.

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