CAIRO: An Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera TV journalists to three years in prison on Saturday for operating without a press license and broadcasting material harmful to Egypt, a case that has stirred an international outcry.
The verdict, in a retrial, was issued against Mohamed Fahmy, a naturalised Canadian who has given up his Egyptian citizenship, Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Peter Greste, an Australian who was deported in February.
Rights advocates say their arrest was part of a crackdown on free speech waged since the army overthrew President Mohamed Mursi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, in July 2013 following mass unrest over his rule.
Judge Hassan Farid said the defendants, dubbed the “Marriott Cell” by the local press because they worked out of a hotel belonging to that chain, “are not journalists and not members of the press syndicate” and broadcast with unlicensed equipment.
Baher received an additional six months in prison. The state news agency MENA said that extra time was handed down because he was in possession of a bullet at the time of his arrest.
The three men were originally sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison on charges that included spreading lies to help a terrorist organisation, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the military toppled from power two years ago.
The three defendants denied all charges, calling them absurd. Three other Egyptians, all students, also received three-year sentences for the same charges.
Speaking on Al Jazeera in reaction to Saturday’s verdict, Greste said he was shocked at the scale of the sentence. “Words really don’t do justice,” he said. “To be given three-year sentences is outrageous. It is just devastating for me.”
Fahmy and Mohamed, who were released on bail in February after over a year in jail, were taken back into custody after the verdict, according to Fahmy’s wife, Marwa Omara. She was in tears after the sentences were read out.