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Waiting for a verdict

Naomi Conrad
August 27, 2015

An Egyptian court is set to issue a verdict on three al-Jazeera journalists accused of being part of a terrorist group and broadcasting false information. One of them, Baher Mohammed, spoke to DW about his ordeal.

Al Jazeera Journalisten Kairo
Image: Reuters

The evening before he, yet again, steps into a soundproof cage in a crowded Cairo courtroom, Baher Mohammed will play with his children, tuck them in and tell them a bed-time story. The next morning, he will tiptoe into their room, trying to make as little noise as possible: "I'll kiss them while they're still asleep and hope I see them again", he told DW.

That, is not a given: This week, the court is set to issue its verdict in the retrial of three Al-Jazeera journalists - Mohammed is one of them - accused of supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false information in their coverage of the massive protests and violent crackdown by security forces following the ouster of President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. The three have dismissed the accusations as baseless. "We didn't do anything wrong", Mohammed said, "we just want to clear our names."

Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed were abducted from the hotel room they were filing from in December 2013 and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison last year. However, an appeals court later ordered a retrial, saying the lower court's verdict was not supported by evidence. Australian national Greste has since been deported to Australia, while Fahmy and Mohamed have been released on bail. A verdict was expected in July, but twice postponed.

Mohammed and Fahmy speaking to journalists outside the courthouse (Foto: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA)
Mohammed (l) and Fahmy (r) were released on bail in February of this yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Elfiqi

Trial politicized

It was the latest twist in a trial that most observers describe as flawed and far from fair: From the start, Doaa Mustafa, who heads the legal unit at the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told DW, the trial was marred by "legal violations."

It was also highly politicized - dragging the journalists into a wider conflict between Egypt and Qatar, which owns the Al-Jazeera broadcaster and supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The relationship between the two countries was at its most strained when the trial started. Since then, however, talks mediated by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have slightly eased tensions.

Trial outcome far from certain

While several lawyers DW interviewed expect that the charges against the three journalists may be dropped, the outcome is far from certain: It comes at a time, when Egypt is increasingly cracking down on independent journalism. A record number of journalists are behind bars and an anti-terrorism law that former army officer-turned-president, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, recently ratified, stipulates hefty fines for reporting "false" information on terrorist attacks or security operations that contradict official statements.

Baher Mohammed, for one, is far from optimistic that he will be acquitted: "It's Egypt, anything can happen". But, he said, unlike so many other activists and journalists languishing in Egyptian jails, he had the luxury of having "massive support" from around the world: Having the world media's spotlight on the trial, probably worked in his favor, he said. Others, he admitted, were less fortunate: "I constantly think about those journalists who are behind bars."

Should the court announce his acquittel, he said, he wanted to go back to journalism as soon as possible, despite everything.

"I really miss my job, I love being a journalist." He was tired of waiting in limbo, he explained, barred from leaving Cairo, let alone Egypt, and forced to report to the police every single day. Ever since he was released on bail, "I'm just trying to survive every day as it comes."

Part of that, is trying to reconnect with his three children, two boys and a girl: His youngest son was born while he was in prison. "Look, I lost one year in the lives of my children", he said, "I missed so many important moments."

Trial traumatized his family

His imprisonment, which lasted for 411 days, traumatized his children: "When I leave the house, my kids ask me: Are you going back to that nasty place? Are you coming back?" Sometimes, he said, his children still wake up at night and creep into his bedroom to make sure he hadn't left. "If they don't see me they wake up their mum and ask her where I am."

Then, after a moment, he went on: When someone upset his eldest son at kindergarten, he would lash out with the worst threat he could imagine: "I'll send you to prison and I won't come and visit you", Mohammed said, quietly, his voice strained.

For Baher Mohammed and so many other journalists behind bars in Egypt, that is not an empty threat.

Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.