WASHINGTON — On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo, where he voiced strong support for the Egyptian government, saying he believed Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi would bring about democratic reforms.
On Monday, an Egyptian judge sentenced three respected journalists _ including an Australian and an Egyptian-Canadian _ to seven years in prison on charges they were leading a terrorist cell from their makeshift offices in a luxury Cairo hotel.
Judge Mohamed Nagy handed down the sentences even though prosecutors never made public the evidence they had against the three, who worked for the Al Jazeera satellite news network.
Wearing his trademark sunglasses, Nagy delivered the seven-year sentences to Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed. Mohammed received an additional three-year sentence for being in possession of a single bullet.
Nagy offered no explanation for his verdict. Among the evidence presented that the three had led a Muslim Brotherhood-backed terror cell from the Marriott hotel were were Greste’s vacation videos, his news reports from Kenya retrieved from his computer, and doctored photos of Fahmy.
Throughout the packed courtroom were stunned, pale faces, many covered with tears. Fahmy yelled, “I will not appeal.” Greste’s brothers, who were in the courtroom, appeared stunned. And Fahmy’s mother began talking to herself in what seemed to be a state of shock.
“Seven years for what? What did he do? My God.” Fahmy’s mother, Wafaa, told the dozens of journalists to tell the world, “They want to kill him for seven years.”
The case was immediately interpreted as a warning to Egypt’s journalists that those who speak to government opponents could face the same fate. Al Jazeera was seen as supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, whom el-Sissi forced from office nearly a year ago.
Since then, thousands of political prisoners have filled Egypt’s courts. Ahmed Maher, the leader of the 6th of April movement, was sentenced to three years for staging a protest; this week, government officials suggested he could be charged with treason. Liberal activist Alaa Abdel Fatah received a 15-year sentence for encouraging a protest.
It was against that backdrop that Kerry on Sunday met el-Sissi, who was inaugurated earlier this month. Kerry said that he raised the Al Jazeera case with el-Sissi and that he believed the new government would bring democratic reforms.
Kerry promised that the sale to Egypt of 10 Apache attack helicopters, which Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., held up in part because of the mass arrests of government opponents and activists, would come “very, very soon.”
On Monday, Kerry called the sentences “chilling” and “draconian” and said they resulted from a trial “that lacked many fundamental norms of due process.”
“I call on him to make clear, publicly, his government’s intention to observe Egypt’s commitment to the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the rule of law,” Kerry said. “The Egyptian government should review all of the political sentences and verdicts pronounced during the last few years and consider all available remedies, including pardons.”
Egyptian officials have stressed that the country’s judiciary is independent and that they cannot speak out on specific cases. But the silence is seen by many as a quiet acquiescence to the judiciary’s crackdown.
The government said it would not issue any statement about Monday’s ruling.