The imprisonment of three Al Jazeera journalists has created an international uproar. While the trio will face a retrial, the outcome will likely be influenced by more than the facts of their case.
If the original sentences were to be carried out in full, three employees from the English-language section of the Qatari media organization Al Jazeera would have to serve another four to seven years in prison. Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy, and Baher Mohammed had reported on Egypt's conflict after the downfall of its then ruling Muslim Brotherhood and they have said were later imprisoned for it.
Now, following an Egyptian appeals court ruling for a retrial, their legal fate is again up in the air.
According to authorities in Cairo, their reports served as propaganda for a terrorist organization. The three journalists have been in jail for over a year now. While their fate will be decided in the courts, ties between Egypt and Qatar will likely also play an important role.
The judicial drama began on December 29, 2013, when Fahmy and Greste were arrested in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Mohamed was detained the same evening at his home. The authorities brought accusations against the three journalists along with others working for Al Jazeera. Among those accusations were the dissemination of false information and carrying film equipment without permission. The most serious accusation, however, was that they were helping the Muslim Brotherhood, and according to the new government, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, formerly in power, were responsible for carrying out terrorist attacks in the country. The defendants have denied the accusations.
Qatar on trial
The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in a 2012 election but was then overthrown in a military coup a year later. The ruling house of Qatar, the home of Al Jazeera, had had close ties to the Egyptian organization. After the coup, the TV station reported critically about the events. Hundreds of people died in street clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. In order to censor reporting, journalists from various newspapers and TV stations were intimidated and threatened and some were arrested.
But the trial for the three Al Jazeera journalists has received the most international interest - for one, because Greste is an Australian, a Westerner in prison; but also because it meant that Doha was indirectly on trial as well. Cairo felt that the Qatari media outlet had become a mouthpiece for the ousted and banned Muslim Brotherhood. The harsh sentences were handed down as a warning to the Gulf state to not get involved in Egyptian domestic politics. Greste and Fahmy were each sentenced to seven years in prison. Mohamed received three years more for allegedly keeping a rifle shell he found while working as a souvenir. Other employees of the organization were sentenced in absentia.
The trial and the sentences of the journalists have been viewed worldwide as a massive restriction of press freedom. Rights group Amnesty International said the accusations had been contrived and that the three journalists were political prisoners. Amnesty appealed to the government for the release of Canadian-Egyptian Fahmy, as he desperately needed medical attention for a broken arm along with treatment for hepatitis C. Journalists and politicians protested across the globe. An international campaign was launched on social network Twitter under the hashtag #FreeAJstaff. From his cell, Greste thanked his supporters and said he was proud of the involvement and commitment to press freedom.
New trial, but less hope for clemency
On Thursday, an appeals court ordered a retrial for the three. The journalists were not present at their trial and would not be granted bail, according to their defense attorney Mostafa Nagy. So they will remain locked up until the trial starts, which could be within the next month.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had pleaded for the release of Greste and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had given some hope last November, when he said there could be a possibility for a pardon. Thursday's decision made by the Cairo Court of Cassation has, however, relinquished such hopes.
Egyptian-Qatari relations could have an effect on the fate of the three prisoners. Good news for them: it appears as though frosty relations might be thawing. Though the Egypt office had been closed, Al Jazeera continued to air its live Egypt TV for Egyptian audiences. But recently, the organization has cut the programming, with the official reason being for restructuring. In any case, the government in Cairo surely welcomed the decision.