'A slap in the face for freedom of speech': Egypt condemned for Al Jazeera seven-year sentences

The "devastated" family of one of three Al Jazeera reporters sentenced to seven years in prison in Egypt today have described the verdicts as "a slap in the face for freedom of speech".

Their statement comes as Prime Minister David Cameron said he is "completely appalled" by the guilty verdicts.

Australian-born Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were sentenced for charges relating to terrorism.

They were arrested in December as part of a crackdown on Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi

Before the sentencing on Monday morning, members of former BBC journalist Greste's family, including his brother Andrew, were in court.

Shortly after the verdicts the family wrote on a Facebook page called 'Free Peter Greste'.

"We are so devastated!" they said. "Peter has received seven years. This is not the end. Please make noise, this is unjust and a slap in the face for freedom of speech and media."

Greste left Australia in 1991 to work as a freelancer for Reuters TV, CNN, WTN and the BBC. In 1995 he was the correspondent in the Afghan capital Kabul for the BBC and Reuters. He then worked for the BBC News channel in London, and as a BBC foreign correspondent in Mexico and Chile.

A demonstration calling for the trio's release was held by journalists, politicians and human rights activists who gathered outside the Egyptian embassy in London in February.

A letter sent earlier this year from media outlets including BBC News, ITN, Sky, Reuters, NBC News and ABC News to Egyptian authorities called for those detained to be set free.

The letter described Greste as "a fine, upstanding correspondent who has proved his impartiality over many years, whichever of our organisations he has been working for, and in whichever country".

It went on to say that Greste was being put on trial because of the Egyptian government's decision on 25 December to add the Muslim Brotherhood to its list of terrorist organisations.

Greste had written that when this happened ''it knocked the middle ground out of the discourse. When the other side, political or otherwise, is a 'terrorist', there is no neutral way… So, even talking to them becomes an act of treason, let alone broadcasting their news, however benign'.'

There were 17 other co-defendants in the case, including two British journalists and a Dutch journalist who were not in Egypt. Eight others being tried in absentia each received ten-year prison sentences.

In a statement on the news organisation's website, Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said the sentencing of the journalists defied any "logic, sense, and any semblance of justice".

"Today three colleagues and friends were sentenced, and will continue to be kept behind bars for doing a brilliant job of being great journalists," said Anstey. "'Guilty' of covering stories with great skill and integrity. 'Guilty' of defending people's right to know what is going on in their world.

"Peter, Mohamed, and Baher and six of our other colleagues were sentenced despite the fact that not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them. At no point during the long drawn out 'trial' did the absurd allegations stand up to scrutiny.

"There is only one sensible outcome now – for the verdict to be overturned, and justice to be recognised by Egypt."

National Union of Journalists' general secretary Michelle Stanistreet described the sentences as "outrageous" and called for the British Government to condemn the verdicts.

"The NUJ condemns in the strongest terms these sentences meted on journalists who were merely doing their job," she said. "This is an outrageous decision and travesty of justice made by a kangaroo court.

"Al Jazeera has rejected the charges against its journalists and maintains their innocence. This is a brutal regime which is attacking and arresting many journalists to attempt to silence them and prevent them from reporting events.

"The British Government must immediately signal its opposition to this verdict and do all it can to have the sentences overturned. The NUJ is calling on all media organisations to register their protest in support of colleagues at Al Jazeera and all the Egyptian journalists who have been attacked and arrested by their country's authorities.

"Governments must not be allowed to deny journalists, wherever they are, the right to be able to report independently and in safety. The freedom of journalists is an integral part of any democratic process."

Free speech campaign group Index on Censorship said the verdicts sent a message that journalists "simply doing their job" was considered a crime in Egypt.

Chief executive Jodie Ginsberg condemned the verdicts as "disgraceful" adding: "We call on the international community to join us in condemning this verdict and ask governments to apply political and financial pressure on a country that is rapidly unwinding recently won freedoms, including freedom of the press.

"The government of newly elected president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi must build on the country's democratic aspirations and halt curbs on the media and the silencing of voices of dissent."

Ginsberg said at least 14 journalists remained in detention in Egypt and some 200 members of the press were in jails around the world, and that concerns are growing over the safety of media representatives across the globe.

"Index is deeply concerned at the growing number of imprisoned journalists in Egypt and around the world," she said. "We reiterate our support to journalists to report freely and safely and call on Egyptian authorities to drop charges against journalists and ensure they are set free from jail.

"And we ask governments to maintain pressure on Egypt to ensure freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights are protected. Index joined the global #FreeAJStaff campaign along with other human rights, press freedom groups and journalists."

The hashtags #journalismisnotacrime and #FreeAJStaff were trending on Twitter this morning after the verdicts came through.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "The Egyptian ambassador to London will be summoned to the Foreign Office today over sentencing of journalists in Egypt."

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister is completely appalled by the guilty verdicts delivered today.

"We are particularly concerned about the reports of procedural issues during the trial, including that key prosecution evidence was not made available to the defence team.

"We will continue to raise this issue with the Egyptian government and urge them to review this case as a matter of urgency and demonstrate their commitment to freedom of expression.

"The Foreign Secretary raised this with the Egyptian foreign minister when he was visiting London in May."

Hague said: "I am appalled by the guilty verdicts handed down today against Egyptian and international journalists in Egypt. Amongst those found guilty were two British journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, who were being tried in absentia.

"I am particularly concerned by unacceptable procedural shortcomings during the trial process, including that key prosecution evidence was not made available to the defence team.

"Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of a stable and prosperous society.

"We have repeatedly raised this case and the restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt with President al-Sisi, the Egyptian foreign minister and wider authorities in Egypt.

"British ministers and diplomats will continue to urge the Egyptian government to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression by reviewing this case as a matter of urgency and I have instructed officials to summon the Egyptian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today."

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa director Philip Luther said the sentencing represented a dark day for freedom of the press in Egypt.

The human rights organisation claimed one of their trial observers "recorded examples of complete ineptitude during the proceedings, as well as several clear irregularities".

Luther said: "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.

"Instead of locking up journalists and others perceived to pose a threat, the authorities should focus their efforts on conducting credible investigations into abuses by the security forces."

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