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Egypt's sentencing of Al Jazeera English reporters to prison draws scorn

Egypt's sentencing of Al Jazeera English reporters to prison draws scorn
Al-Jazeera English journalists Mohamed Fahmy, left, of Canada and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, at their sentencing Aug. 29, 2015, in Cairo. (Khaled Desouki / AFP/Getty Images)

Rights groups, freedom of the press advocates, family members and supporters expressed dismay Saturday after an Egyptian court sentenced three journalists for the broadcaster Al Jazeera English to prison terms of at least three years.

The case has been viewed by many as emblematic of a wave of repression -- much of it at the hands of the judiciary and law-enforcement officials -- that has followed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office by the Egyptian military more than two years ago. The three journalists were accused of aiding Morsi’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news.

One of the trio, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, was sentenced in absentia, having been deported to his homeland in February after Egypt's highest court granted the journalists a retrial. Canadian Mohammed Fahmy, who had renounced his Egyptian citizenship in hopes of deportation, and producer Baher Mohammed, an Egyptian, were again taken into custody after the verdict.

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In Qatar, the journalists' employer called the ruling inexplicable.

"Today's verdict defies logic and common sense," said Mostefa Souag, Al Jazeera's acting director. "The whole case has been heavily politicized and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner."

The legal saga has dragged on for the past 20 months, beginning with the journalists' arrests in December 2013 after authorities raided their offices in a five-star Cairo hotel.

After a trial in which oddly unrelated video footage was offered to support the terror-related accusations against them, the three -- who watched the proceedings from inside a courtroom cage -- were given seven-year sentences in June 2014, with Mohammed receiving an extra three years.

That verdict was set aside in January of this year, and Fahmy and Mohammed were later freed pending a new ruling. In the interim, Fahmy married his longtime fiancee, expressed cautious hopes for an acquittal, and sought deportation to Canada. His lawyer, Amal Clooney, said she and Canada's ambassador to Egypt would continue to press the deportation request.

From its outset, the case was strongly colored by Egypt's very public diplomatic dispute with Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera. The wealthy Gulf emirate infuriated Egypt's leaders by calling for Morsi's reinstatement after the popularly supported coup against him. The network's Egypt affiliate, which operated separately from the English-language service and had vociferously defended Morsi, was shut down.

The defendants were expected to appeal their latest conviction on charges of operating without official authorization and making broadcasts harmful to Egypt. President Abdel Fattah Sisi, who as defense minister presided over the coup against Morsi, could also pardon them, or order Fahmy deported.

Clooney, whose courtroom appearance on Saturday was her first in the case, called the verdict a "very dangerous message."

"It sends a message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news," she told reporters afterward. "And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda."

Condemnations of the verdict poured in from international rights groups and media advocacy organizations. Reporters Without Borders called the sentencings "disgraceful" and Amnesty International termed the proceedings "farcical."

Greste, speaking to Al Jazeera from Sydney, said Saturday's outcome was "truly devastating."

Although Al Jazeera has publicly stood by the journalists, the broadcaster's own role in their ordeal has been called into question. Fahmy has filed a $100-million lawsuit in Canada accusing Al Jazeera of disregarding its employees' safety by taking a stridently pro-Brotherhood stance in Arabic-language broadcasts.

In an op-ed published in June in the New York Times, Fahmy wrote that the network had "knowingly antagonized the Egyptian authorities" and made the journalists "unwitting pawns in Qatar's geopolitical game."

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