Saturday 20 December 2014

Egypt defiant on jailed reporters

Published 24/06/2014 | 06:17

The parents of jailed journalist Peter Greste, Lois and Juris (AP/AAP)
The parents of jailed journalist Peter Greste, Lois and Juris (AP/AAP)
Peter Greste in a cage during his trial on terror charges in Cairo (AP)

Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi says he will not interfere in court rulings, the day after three Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison, sparking an international outcry.

Mr el-Sissi, speaking in a nationally televised speech during a military graduation ceremony, said Egypt has an independent judiciary and urged people to stop commenting on or criticising rulings by courts.

"We will not interfere in court verdicts," he said.

The intervention came after Australia's prime minister said he had had a "very constructive discussion" with Mr el-Sissi about one of the three journalists, Peter Greste.

Tony Abbott has pledged that his government will work quickly to free Australian Mr Greste, who was sentenced by a Cairo court yesterday on terrorism-related charges stemming from an interview with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

"We're obviously shocked, dismayed, really bewildered by the decision of the court in Egypt," Mr Abbott said.

He said Australia respects the legitimacy of the Egyptian government, its justice system and the need "to crack down on extremism including the Muslim Brotherhood, but ... it is important that there be due process, it is important that decisions be made on a fair and just basis, so we will be talking to the Greste family, we will be talking to the Egyptian government about what we can do to try to ensure that Peter Greste comes home as quickly as possible".

He added: "My understanding is that the Egyptian court system does work at arm's length from the government, but I do understand that once the court system has done its work, then there are options for presidential acts - presidential clemency, presidential pardons and so on - that's why I'm not in the business of being critical of the government."

Mr Greste's father said his family was stunned by the court's decision to imprison his son.

Juris Greste told reporters in the family's home town of Brisbane that he was in a state of shock and was struggling to think straight.

"We're not usually a family of superlatives, but I have to say this morning my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are," Mr Greste said. "You can never prepare yourself for something as painful as this."

Juris Greste described the judgment as "a slap in the face and a kick in the groin to Australia as well as all fair-minded people around the world".

He told reporters: " Journalism is not a crime, or you should all be behind bars- it's a simple as that.

"Our son Peter is an award-winning journalist, he is not a criminal."

His wife Lois said there had been no decision on an appeal, but the family was considering all options.

The family did not know if their son might be able to be transferred to an Australian prison to serve his sentence.

Peter Greste's brothers Andrew and Mike were in Cairo to hear the decision, but have not yet been allowed to visit their brother, she said.

The verdict of seven years in prison against the journalists brought a landslide of international condemnation.

Rights groups described their five-month trial as a sham, with no evidence presented to back the terrorism-related charges, saying the three were being punished simply for reporting on protests by backers of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

The White House said the ruling "flouts the most basic standards of media freedom" and was a "blow to democratic progress". It called on Mr el-Sissi to intervene to bring about the immediate release of the three - Mr Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed.

Mr el-Sissi said he spoke to the justice minister last night and, "I told him one word: We will not interfere in judicial matters because the Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary.

"If we desire (strong) state institutions, we must respect court rulings and not comment on them even if others don't understand these rulings."

Under the constitution, the president has the power to issue a pardon or commute the sentences.

The journalists' arrest last December was part of the broad crackdown against Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood after Mr el-Sissi - in his former post of army chief - removed Mr Morsi last summer.

The journalists' trial was further politicised by the Egyptian government's deep enmity with the Gulf nation Qatar, which was a strong ally of Mr Morsi's Brotherhood and owns the Al-Jazeera network.

Egyptian authorities accuse Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood, a claim the network denies. Also, Mr el-Sissi's powerful Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are strongly opposed to the Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. Those allies have given Egypt billions of pounds in aid since Mr Morsi's removal.

Prosecutors accused the three journalists of promoting or belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and of falsifying their coverage of protests to hurt Egypt's security and make it appear the country was sliding into civil war. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

The journalists say they are being prosecuted for doing their job and are pawns in the political rivalry. During the trial, prosecutors presented no evidence backing the charges, at times citing random video footage found with the defendants that even the judge dismissed as irrelevant.

Mr Mohammed, the Al-Jazeera team's producer, had three years tacked on to his seven-year sentence for possession of ammunition, referring to a spent shell he picked up at a protest.

Amnesty International called the sentences a "travesty of justice". Human Rights Watch said the journalists were sentenced on "zero evidence" of wrongdoing and that the judges were "caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by" Mr el-Sissi.

Press Association

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