Greste challenges Egyptian prosecutor to produce evidence

 

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Australian journalist Peter Greste is “devastated and sickened” by the three-year sentence he and two colleagues have been given by an Egyptian court and has vowed to fight it by any means possible.

The verdict, in a retrial, was issued against Mohamed Fahmy, a naturalised Canadian who has given up his Egyptian citizenship, Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Greste, an Australian who was deported in February.

They were sentenced for operating without a press license and broadcasting material harmful to Egypt.

“As you know I am also convicted and also sentenced to three years in prison. I’m also innocent, there is never any evidence that the court presented, that the prosecutor presented either in the first trial or in the second to confirm any of the allegations against us,” Greste told reporters in Sydney.

“In fact, I’d like to publicly challenge the prosecutor to present evidence of anything that we produced that was falsified.”

Greste says the verdict against him and his Al Jazeera colleagues Canadian Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed for supporting terrorism is politically motivated.

“The only conclusion that we can come to is that this verdict was politically motivated. (Egyptian) President (Abdel Fattah) el-Sisi now has the opportunity to undo that injustice, to correct that injustice.”

“I feel quite sick to my stomach,” he told the media in Sydney on Sunday, referring to the fate of his friends in Egypt.

Greste called on the Egyptian president to pardon him and his colleagues.

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He also challenged the prosecutor to present evidence that the journalists produced falsified reports – one of the most serious charges they faced.

Any efforts by Mr Greste to contest the conviction will be supported by the federal government, says Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

“It’s devastating enough for me and my career, it means I won’t be able to travel to any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt,” Peter Greste said.

“It means that I’ll carry a conviction as a terrorist. But, that’s just an inconvenience compared to what my colleagues are having to go through.

“I know what the conditions are like in an Egyptian prison. I know how tough it is going to be for them and I also know their families.”

Mr Greste was convicted in absentia but his colleagues, Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed, were taken from the court in Cairo immediately after they were sentenced.

Fahmy and Mohamed, who were released on bail in February after over a year in jail, were taken back into custody after the verdict, according to Fahmy’s wife, Marwa Omara. She was in tears after the sentences were read out.

“We will appeal this verdict and hope it will be reversed. We are now going to be holding a series of meetings with government officials where we will be asking for Mr. Fahmy’s immediate deportation to Canada,” said Fahmy’s lawyer, Amal Clooney.

“His colleague Peter Greste was sent back to Australia; there is no reason why the same thing shouldn’t happen in Mr. Fahmy’s case.”

Judge Hassan Farid said in his ruling he had sentenced the men to prison because they had not registered with the country’s journalist syndicate.

He also said the men brought in equipment without security officials’ approval, had broadcast “false news” on Al Jazeera and used a hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.

Convicting three journalists as terrorists without any evidence is “outrageous” and was purely a political move, Mr Greste told Al Jazeera.

International condemnation

Western governments have voiced concern for freedom of expression in Egypt since Mursi was ousted but have not taken concrete steps to promote democracy in Egypt, an important strategic ally in the Middle East.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement on Saturday, shortly after the verdict was delivered, she was “dismayed” by the trial’s outcome.

She said she had spoken with Mr Greste and that she would “continue to pursue all diplomatic avenues with (her) Egyptian counterpart to clear his name”.

In a joint statement, Labor leader Bill Shorten and opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said the sentence was “unjust” and that “journalists shouldn’t be put on trial or locked up for doing their job anywhere in the world”.

“Mohamed has been sentenced and all I can ask for now is for all his colleagues to stand by him and to keep calling for his release, but this is extremely unfair,” said Fahmy’s wife.

“I ask the Canadian government to extract him from here as he is a Canadian citizen and to deport him back to Canada. All what I am asking (for) is justice and fairness, for what happened with Peter to be applied to Mohamed.”

Canada called for Fahmy’s “full and immediate release,” after the verdict. “Senior Canadian officials in Canada and in Cairo are pressing Egyptian authorities on Mr. Fahmy’s case. This includes advocating for the same treatment of Mr. Fahmy as other foreign nationals have received,” Canadian Minister of State Lynne Yelich said in a statement.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement it was “deeply disappointed” by the verdict, which “undermines the very freedom of expression necessary for stability and development.”

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Raad, said: “We are very disturbed by these three sentences and the extra pressure it creates on journalists in Egypt who are just trying to do their jobs.”

The European Union said the verdict represented “a setback for freedom of expression in Egypt”.

‘A black day in the history of Egyptian judiciary’

Al Jazeera condemned the court’s decision in a statement read by the channel’s general director, Mostefa Souag.

“This judgement is a new attack on the freedom of the press, and it’s a black day in the history of the Egyptian judiciary.”

“There is no evidence our colleagues in any way fabricated news. This was comprehensively debunked by the court’s own technical committee,” Al Jazeera English Acting Managing Director Giles Trendle told a news conference in Doha.

Human rights groups have accused Egyptian authorities of rolling back freedoms won in the 2011 popular uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

In June, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt was holding at least 18 journalists behind bars, the highest number since record-keeping began in 1990. They were being held on the pretext of national security to crack down on media freedoms, it said.

Egypt says it has launched a security crackdown to eradicate Islamist militant “terrorists” and deliver stability.

Speaking after the verdict, the British ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, said the country’s stability should not be built on a “shaky foundation which deprives people of their rights and undermines the freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”

Amnesty International called Saturday’s verdict “farcical.”

“The fact that two of these journalists are now facing time in jail following two grossly unfair trials makes a mockery of justice in Egypt,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Long and tortured court case

In December 2013, Egyptian security forces raided the up-market hotel suite being used by Al Jazeera to report from Egypt.

Mr Greste, Mr Fahmy and Mr Mohammed were subsequently charged with airing falsified footage intended to damage national security and with being part of ousted president Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist organisation.

The three men were convicted on June 23, 2014, with Mr Greste and Mr Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mr Mohammed to 10 years.

Egypt’s Court of Cassation, the country’s highest appeals court, later ordered their retrial, saying the initial proceedings were marred by violations of the defendants’ rights.

Egypt deported Mr Greste in February even though he remained charged in the case. Mr Fahmy and Mr Mohammed were later released on bail.

Mr Greste said he had been in contact with his lawyer but would not be appealing the sentence as that would require him to return to Egypt.

“We will explore any other legal avenues that we have open to us,” he said.

Mr Greste has called for governments and diplomats across the world to “make it clear to Egypt that it cannot make these kinds of judgments”.