by Jim Lobe*
The administration of President Barack Obama joined international human rights groups around the world in “strongly condemn(ing)” Monday’s conviction and sentencing by an Egyptian court of three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 others for their alleged association with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The White House, however, did not indicate what actions it was prepared to take, if any, in response to the verdicts, which it said “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom and represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt.”
In a statement, it appealed instead to the new government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general, Egypt’s strongman since the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi almost exactly one year ago, to commute the sentences or pardon the defendants, as well as others who have been convicted for political reasons.
“Perhaps most disturbing is that this verdict comes as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance,” according to the White House statement.
“These include the prosecution of peaceful protesters and critics of the government, and a series of summary death sentences in trials that fail to achieve even a semblance of due process.”
Monday’s verdicts, which were also strongly denounced by a number of Western governments and press watchdog groups, immediately followed Sunday’s visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo where he met with both Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry during which he reportedly appealed for a more conciliatory approach to the Muslim Brotherhood.
On the eve of his arrival, however, an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, and 182 supporters in a mass trial that has also been broadly condemned by rights groups and Western governments.
Kerry’s visit, which was billed as an attempt to rebuild ties after a partial freeze on U.S. military aid following the coup and the subsequent killings of hundreds of Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, marked the highest-level meeting Sisi has held with a U.S. official since his election to the presidency last month.
Officials accompanying Kerry on the trip told reporters before his arrival that Washington had quietly restored all but about 78 million dollars of the 650 million dollars earlier this month. It was the first of two tranches of military aid earmarked for Egypt this year.
Washington has provided Cairo with an average of about 1.3 billion dollars in military aid annually over the past two decades.
Despite the death sentences confirmed Saturday, Kerry told reporters in Cairo after meeting Sisi that he was “absolutely confident” that all of the aid would soon be restored, although the State Department said later Monday it was “constantly reviewing” what aid should be provided.
Analysts here said the timing of Kerry’s announcement — coming so soon after the latest death sentences and on the eve of the reporters’ sentencing — was particularly unfortunate and effectively reduced what leverage Washington enjoys over the new government.
“He should’ve at least waited to make the announcement until the verdict [in the reporters’ trial] came out, because he knew it was scheduled today,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former senior analyst on the Middle East and political Islam for the CIA.
“Frankly, it’s pathetic for the United States to be in the position where we see clear violations of human rights and the most elementary principles of judicial practice hiding under the pretence that this is an independent judiciary,” he told IPS.
“We all know that the judiciary in Egypt has been the arm of the state for years. I feel embarrassed for our secretary of state to have to sit there and listen while the foreign minister says the judiciary is independent.”
The three Al Jazeera journalists, all of whom had previously worked for mainstream international news media, include Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste; and Egyptian Baher Mohamed.
Detained since a raid on their studio in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo last December and charged with membership in the Brotherhood and fabricating video footage to “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war,” the three were sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison, with an additional three years for Mohamed for possessing a spent shell he kept as a souvenir.
The other defendants, mostly students, were accused of aiding the reporters in allegedly fabricating the footage. While two were acquitted, most were sentenced to seven years in prison; those tried in absentia were sentenced to 10 years.
“The trial was a complete sham,” according to Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when jouirnalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job.”
He was joined by Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, who complained that the prosecution had offered “zero evidence of wrongdoing” and noted that current U.S. law requires that military aid be withheld pending real progress on the human rights situation in Egypt.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also denounced the verdicts as “shocking and an extremely disturbing sign for the future of the Egyptian press,” while Reporters Without Borders in Paris said they offered evidence of the “Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature.”
Kerry issued his own condemnation of the verdicts in between urgent meetings with Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad Monday. He called the conviction and sentences “chilling” and “draconian” and “a deeply disturbing setback to Egypt’s transition.”
He said he had phoned Shoukry Monday “to make very clear our deep concerns” and appealed for Sisi’s government “to review all of the political sentences and verdicts pronounced during the last few years and consider all available remedies, including pardons.”
But Nakhleh said Washington’s appeals are unlikely to have the desired effect. “The appeal by the White House for clemency isn’t going to carry any weight with the Sisi government,” he told IPS. “We’ve really lost all credibility.” He called for Congress to re-impose the aid freeze.
Indeed, the powerful chairman Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, suggested late Monday that he would work for such a freeze in light of the latest verdicts.
“The harsh actions taken today against journalists is the latest descent toward despotism,” he said in a statement. “Through discussions with Secretary Kerry and others over recent weeks, I agreed to the release of the bulk of these funds for sustainment purposes, but further aid should be withheld until they demonstrate a basic commitment to justice and human rights.”
CPJ’s director, Joel Simon, said the Al-Jazeera journalists have become “pawns” in a conflict between the Egypt and Qatar, which supported the Brotherhood and Morsi’s government, in particular. Since Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have replaced Doha has Cairo’s main financial supporter.
Riyadh has even vowed to provide the government with any military aid withheld by the United States.
*This article was first published by IPS News and was reprinted here with permission.
Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry Meets With New Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, Egypt on June 22, 2014. Credit: State Department