Prison sentence for al-Jazeera journalists: harsh punishment and a grave violation of media freedom in Egypt

63The undersigned organizations condemn the conviction handed down yesterday by the Cairo Felony Court, which convened in the Police Academy in Tora for the final session of what became known as the “Marriott cell” case. The session ended with six defendants sentenced in presence to seven years in prison and another to ten years; 11 defendants were sentenced to ten years each in absentia, while two defendants were acquitted.

The judgment issued yesterday—the harshest ever handed down by an Egypt court to journalists on the job— was a violation of due process and a fair trial. It is a flagrant infringement of freedom of opinion and expression and demonstrates how the judiciary has been deployed to gag media critical of the current administration and punish journalists and media workers through prosecution.

The case (no. 1145/2014/Qasr al-Nile felonies) began in December 2013 when the security apparatus arrested several people in various places, including at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, and referred them to the Supreme State Security Prosecution. They were questioned by the prosecution before being referred to a felony court on charges of joining a group established in violation of the law with the goal of obstructing provisions of the constitution and laws, preventing state institutions and authorities from operation, possession of printed matter and recordings propagating the group’s aims, supplying the group with material and financial aid, possession of communications and broadcast equipment without a permit from the competent bodies (Thoraya phone and a Mobile Viewpoint device), broadcasting false news, information, and rumors about the internal conditions in the country and disseminating it on the internet and a satellite channel (al-Jazeera), possession of a public recording device, and possession with intent to display of false images about the internal conditions of the country likely to harm its reputation.

The convicted journalists were handed down extremely stiff sentences even though the court did not accuse them of using force or violence in carrying out the crime. In addition, testimonies in the case were clearly inconsistent, and the State Security Prosecution could not prove that the defendants belonged to an illegal group, all of which raises severe doubts about their involvement in the alleged acts. In fact, the undersigned organizations do not understand on what basis the court ruled to convict yesterday.

The judicial establishment has come to utterly disregard constitutional principles that require respect for freedom of expression, a free press and media, and the exchange of information. In so doing, it has insulted the bench and turned trials into an empty process designed to paper over the abuse of political dissidents with a veneer of legality.

With this verdict, the Egyptian authorities have also abandoned their international obligations on freedom of expression and the press as set forth in several conventions and treaties, most importantly Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits restrictions of freedom of expression except in cases of necessity, as based on law, and for a legitimate reason. The sentence against the al-Jazeera journalists did not meet these standards. The journalists committed no criminal act, but simply engaged in the profession of journalism, which is protected by the Egyptian constitution and the press law (Law 96/1996). Article 7 of the latter states, “An opinion issued by a journalist or correct information he publishes may not be a cause to infringe his security…”

The undersigned organizations urge the Supreme Judicial Council to confront the recklessness of the judiciary as demonstrated in several recent judgments, among them the al-Jazeera case and the 183 death sentences handed down to defendants in connection with events at the al-Adwa police station. These verdicts and the trial procedures should be reviewed to determine if they meet the conditions for a fair trial.

Signatory organizations
  1. Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
  2. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
  3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  4. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
  5. Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence
  6. Human Rights Legal Aid Group
  7. Land Center for Human Rights
  8. Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance
  9. Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement

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