An Egyptian judge on Monday sentenced three journalists for the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera to between seven and 10 years in prison on terrorism-related charges, stunning their supporters and raising an immediate outcry from human rights advocates and foreign governments.
The harsh sentence came only a day after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited Cairo and privately told Egyptian officials that the Obama administration would like to see the men freed. In Baghdad on Monday, Kerry called the verdict "chilling."
The charges against the journalists are widely viewed as politicized, stemming from Egypt's anger over Qatari criticism of the Egyptian military's deposing of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last summer.
The three -- Australian Peter Greste, Canadian Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed -- all work for Al Jazeera's English-language service. All have strenuously denied any wrongdoing, and defense lawyers said the sentences would be appealed.
President Abdel Fattah Sisi, in office just two weeks but the country's de facto leader for nearly a year, immediately came under diplomatic pressure over the verdict, with Egypt's envoys in Britain and the Netherlands summoned by the respective governments. Two Britons and a Dutch national also charged in the case were convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10-year terms.
In the crowded courtroom, with the white-clad defendants looking on from a caged dock, the verdict elicited gasps and groans. Fahmy's fiancee stormed from the courtroom, and Greste's brother, Andrew, said afterward he was "gutted, devastated."
Rights groups called the outcome a heavy blow to press freedom, particularly in the wake of Egypt's broad rollback of other basic rights, including freedom of expression and assembly. Amnesty International denounced the proceedings as a sham.
The journalists have already been jailed for nearly six months following their arrests at the end of December. They have been vilified in the official Egyptian media as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement of the ousted Morsi. State-run and pro-military outlets called them the "Marriott cell," in reference to the Cairo hotel where they worked out of a suite.
For nearly a year, Egypt has been engaged in a sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood, an operation that has expanded over the months to include some secular and liberal critics as well. Thousands have been jailed and hundreds killed in street clashes between Brotherhood supporters and security forces.
The Canadian and Australian ambassadors to Egypt were in the courtroom for Monday's verdict, and both expressed shock and bewilderment at the outcome. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her government was "appalled" by the sentencing and would explore means of legal intervention, such as a presidential pardon. Appeals in Egypt's creaking court system can be a years-long process.
Al Jazeera denounced the verdicts, saying in a statement that the court outcome "defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice."
Egypt has consistently defended the draconian penalties meted out by its courts against alleged members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood as the work of an independent judiciary in which the executive branch should not interfere. In recent months, Egyptian judges have frequently presided over mass tribunals that sometimes result in death sentences for hundreds of defendants at a time.
Court proceedings against the Al Jazeera journalists, spread out over 12 hearings, produced darkly farcical moments. Investigators called to testify acknowledged they could not produce proof of any kind that the three had made false reports or endangered Egypt's national security. Belongings seized from the hotel suite were displayed in court as evidence, including mundane objects such as cellphones and microphones. The court viewed allegedly incriminating videos that featured subjects including animal welfare and months-old news conference footage.
In addition to the seven-year sentence on charges against the three that included spreading false news and harming Egypt's security, Baher Mohamed received an additional three-year term on a charge of possessing ammunition. Al Jazeera said the item in question was a spent shell casing picked up as a souvenir.
Among the other defendants in the case were 14 Egyptians, most of whom were identified as students and accused of providing video of pro-Morsi protests to Al Jazeera. Four received seven-year jail terms and eight were sentenced in absentia to 10 years. Two, including the son of a prominent Brotherhood leader, were acquitted.
Hassan is a special correspondent.