CAIRO, Egypt — In a landmark case for press freedom, a judge in Egypt has sent three Al Jazeera journalists to jail for at least seven years, less than 24 hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry said he raised their case with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The families of the men grew distraught as they listened to the judge's ruling Monday, their hopes of an acquittal smashed. Some sobbed as their relatives were hauled away by police, back to their prison cells.
One of the journalists, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, yelled "They'll pay for this!" as he left the cage, while his mother and fiance looked on.
The prosecution of Fahmy, along with producer Baher Mohamed and Australian former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, has made headlines around the world. The three journalists, alongside several others with whom they were said to have conspired, were jailed for the alleged crime of fabricating television reports in a plot to help the Muslim Brotherhood bring down the Egyptian government.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the political organization to which the ousted Mohammed Morsi belongs, has been designated a terrorist organization since December.
Observers condemned the verdict, saying the three journalists were swept up into the Egyptian establishment's vendetta against Al Jazeera, which they see as a propaganda organ for the Brotherhood.
“The trial was a complete sham. Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Director of the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.
The prosecutor's evidence largely consisted of footage found in Al Jazeera English's makeshift studio in central Cairo's Marriott hotel, some of which was shown in court and much of which had little obvious relation to the charges. It included documentaries about soccer, horses and Somalia, a press conference from Nairobi, footage of sheep, and a music video of the pop star Gotye.
GlobalPost previously reported on the most absurd moments in the trial.
Secretary of State Kerry said he raised the journalists' case with Sisi on Sunday.
"He gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to make certain that the process he has put in place, a re-evaluation of human-rights legislation, a re-evaluation of the judicial process, and other choices that are available are very much on his mind," Kerry said at a press conference after his meeting with Sisi.
But he did not suggest that conditions related to press freedom or human rights would stand in the way of US military aid, including a number of Apache attack helicopters, to Egypt.
"I am confident … that the Apaches will come and that they will come very, very soon," he said.
Kerry isn't prioritizing press freedom in Egypt, according to Amy Hawthorne, resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri center for the Middle East in Washington. His public comments suggest the US wants to first and foremost allay tensions between the two countries, she said.
"The US is going to raise concerns, but at a lower volume," she said. "There won't be serious consequences for ongoing human rights abuses. There won't be a significant cost for Egypt to pay, based on its domestic political performance."
For State Department policymakers, cooperation on security and strategic issues such as terrorism, and the right of the US military to use both Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal take precedence, she said.
"Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Ironically, Sisi himself used to be a press freedom advocate. He went so far as to condemn regimes that stifled the press in his college thesis, "Democracy in the Middle East," which he wrote at the United States College of War in 2006.
"The media will be an obstacle to a democratic form of government unless it can be trusted to represent more than the government's perspective," he wrote. "This will be an immense challenge because those in power must be willing to let go of media control.
"It may be that the early stages of democracy lack objective reporting until independent news organizations can be established free of retribution. One of the key first steps may be to initiate this approach with the help of international news organizations and pressure from democracies with free press."