Five legal controversies in the Al Jazeera case

On Wednesday, a number of Egyptian newspapers published the legal reasoning and findings behind the case of the “Al Jazeera Journalists,” issued by the Giza Court of Felonies, presided over by Justice Mohamed Nagy. 

The court issued its verdict on June 23: Seven years imprisonment for Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, Suhaib Saad, Khaled Abdel Rahman, Khaled Mohamed, and Shady Abdel Hameed. The court sentenced Baher Mohamed to ten years imprisonment, along with 11 other defendants who were tried in absentia. Anas al-Beltagy and Ahmed Abdel Hameed were acquitted.

According to the published findings and the court’s legal reasoning, this verdict rests on several key principles, which have provoked controversy amongst rights observers in terms of their legality.

1. Connecting the defendants to the Muslim Brotherhood: The court’s reasoning indicates that its verdict was based on investigations conducted by the national security apparatus, which sought to draw connections between the defendants and the Muslim Brotherhood media apparatus in Qatar.

Links were made between Egyptian and foreign reporters and the Brotherhood’s alleged objective of using audio-visual materials to harm Egypt’s national image, portraying the country in a state of chaos and disorder and as a failed state with internal divisions. The court also assumed the Brotherhood wanted to thwart national efforts to realize the political roadmap.

According to Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression who also was involved in the issue, this case lacks any definitive evidence linking the sentenced journalists to the Muslim Brotherhood in any capacity, whether in terms of affiliation or cooperation. 

According to Ezzat, the sentenced Al Jazeera staffers were linked to the Brotherhood with the purpose of connecting their actions and the accusations against them with terrorist intentions. This facilitated their prosecution in accordance with the Penal Code’s articles pertaining to terrorism — leading to harsher sentences and a referral to the felonies court, as opposed to the court of misdemeanors.

2. Accusing the defendants of using unauthorized equipment: According to the court, the sentenced staffers were found to have possessed and used equipment for recording and editing, along with live broadcasting devices operating on satellite and Internet connections, which were allegedly being utilized without official authorization.

Ezzat commented that the use of such devices is very normal for reporters doing their jobs, and that possession of most of these devices does not violate any Egyptian laws. Furthermore, the devices were rented from the Center for Thought Development — owned by Abdel Rahman — a media services company that was officially registered with Egyptian authorities as an NGO.

Regarding the legality of using and possessing satellite devices for live broadcasts and similar communications technology, a license must be obtained from the National Telecommunications Regulation Authority for their use. However, “even in light of violating the telecommunications law, such an offense is typically referred to the court of misdemeanors, and not felonies. Penalties for such violations entail imprisonment for no more than three years, or a fine,” Ezzat clarified. 

He continued: “The vague and elastic nature of the Penal Code’s articles relating to crimes of terrorism have allowed the leveling of such charges against them [the defendants]. Thus these charges were referred to a felonies court, which issued harsh and lengthy prison sentences, even though such charges could be classified as misdemeanors under other laws.”

According to Ezzat, no evidence was provided to link those sentenced to the use of such devices for terrorist objectives, even though this trial has invoked such accusations.

3. Accusing the defendant of reporting false information: Other charges relate to misleading and false media content. The sentenced staffers were accused of falsifying video footage through the use of Final Cut Pro editing software. The purpose of such footage, it was claimed, was to disseminate false news and tarnish Egypt’s image.

Ezzat distinguished here between media content in general, and misinformation or slander. He drew a comparison between the present case, and the case of Ibrahim Eissa, with regards to his claims about the health of former President Hosni Mubarak.

In September 2008, Journalist Ibahim Eissa (former Editor-in-Chief of Al-Dostour Newspaper) was sentenced to two months in prison on charges of spreading false news about Mubarak’s health — claims which led to the detriment of Egypt’s economy, according to the court’s findings and legal reasoning.

Ezzat claimed: “In the case of Ibrahim Eissa, the court issued its ruling on the grounds that he was unable to provide evidence of Mubarak’s deteriorating health. On this basis he was charged with spreading false news. This is quite different from the case of the Al Jazeera journalists, as the prosecution has not provided any evidence regarding falsified media reports.”

The lawyer went on to explain that the same event can be seen from a number or perspectives. “For example, there are those who believe that police attacks on demonstrators are a criminal act, while others perceive them as self-defense and a right guaranteed by law for security forces. These are differing points of view, not false information; such media content is not considered a crime. I’m not talking about professionalism of media work here, as such editorial and professional standards are the business of the media outlets themselves and not the law.”

Ezzat pointed out that the dissemination of false news and information is addressed in Articles 102 and 188 of the Penal Code. Cases involving such violations are usually referred to the misdemeanor court not the felony or criminal court.

4. Accusing one of the defendants of possessing weapons: The sentence handed to Baher Mohammed, of three additional years in prison, was issued in light of his possession of an empty tear gas canister and a spent bullet, raising his sentence to 10 years imprisonment.

Ezzat said that this is not a crime. “It’s natural that Baher would collect an empty tear gas canister or a bullet from the area of clashes he’s covering. Surely he didn’t steal them from security forces. Instead he used them for reporting, so where’s the crime?”

5. Issuing unfounded arrest warrants: The court rejected all arguments presented by the defendants’ lawyers, such as an allegedly invalid arrest warrant based on unfounded claims. The whole process of the criminal claim — the issuing of a warrant, and arrest of the defendants — was flawed, and thus invalid.

“The investigators did not present any solid or conclusive evidence linking the defendants to the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, they were not able to prove that their media work was linked to terrorist activities. Nor was there any accurate or comprehensive data from investigators,” Ezzat said. 

Ezzat claimed that police investigators got the names of some of the defendants from the hotel management at the Marriott hotel, where they were arrested.

The lawyer explained that some of this personal information was incorrectly written down. “So, how could the judge be certain that the name mentioned in his court papers related to the same person?”

Ezzat concluded that some of the foreign journalists sentenced to imprisonment in absentia were not working for the Al Jazeera network in any capacity whatsoever. Their crime was merely visiting their friends at the hotel, which rendered them fellow defendants in this case.

Mostafa Mohie 

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