CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court sentenced three Al-Jazeera English journalists to three years in prison on Saturday for broadcasting "false news," sparking an international outcry and underlining how authorities are trampling over free speech just over a year into general-turned-politician Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's presidency.
The men are now seeking a pardon from el-Sissi, who has personally expressed regret over the long-running trial and the damage it has done to Egypt's international reputation — saying it would have been better to simply deport the journalists. Al Jazeera said it will also appeal the verdict, once the court releases its full ruling in the next 30 days.
Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed's case had embroiled their work into the wider political conflict between Egypt and Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, following the 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The verdict comes just weeks after el-Sissi issued a new anti-terrorism law, which sets a sweeping definition for who could face a harsh set of punishments, including journalists who don't toe the government line. The new law, like Saturday's verdict, has drawn criticism from diplomats, press freedom advocates and human rights organizations.
Greste, who was deported from Egypt in February, said he believed an Egyptian appeals court would overturn the verdict, and called on el-Sissi to pardon him and his colleagues. Fahmy and Mohammed, both on hand for Saturday's hearing, were immediately taken away by police after the hearing.
"In the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, the only conclusion that we can come to is that this verdict was politically motivated," Greste told reporters in Sydney on Sunday. "President Sissi now has an opportunity to undo that injustice. The eyes of the world are on Egypt."
Mostefa Souag, Al-Jazeera's acting director-general, also criticized the verdict, saying it "defies logic and common sense."
"The whole case has been heavily politicized and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner," Souag said in a statement. "There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organizations and at no point during the long drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny."
Judge Hassan Farid, in his ruling, said he sentenced the men to prison because they had not registered with the country's journalist syndicate. He also said the men brought in equipment without security officials' approval, had broadcast "false news" on Al-Jazeera and used a hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.
Fahmy's wife, Marwa, broke down in tears as the verdict was read out, with others sobbing in the courtroom.
"I am asking for justice, for fairness," she said while leaving the court. "I feel extremely disappointed because I love my country and I know that Mohammed loves his country. ... It's really hard for us."
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who represented Fahmy on Saturday, said she would be meeting with Egyptian officials later in the day along with Canadian Ambassador Troy Lulashnyk to press for a presidential pardon.
"The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt," Clooney said. "Journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news. And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda."
"We are now going to be holding in Cairo a series of meetings with government officials where we will be asking for a pardon, in this case, and if a pardon is not immediately available then deportation to Canada," she said.
Egypt regularly pardons convicts, especially around national and religious holidays. During this summer's holy month of Ramadan, for example, authorities pardoned 165 people arrested for breaking a much-decried law banning unauthorized protests.
Lulashnyk said Canada was deeply disappointed by the outcome and would push for Fahmy's freedom.
"We are calling for (Fahmy's) full and immediate release and his return to Canada, and this is now the time for the government to make that happen," he said.
The case began in December 2013, when Egyptian security forces raided the upscale hotel suite used by Al-Jazeera at the time to report from Egypt. The journalists began using the hotel as a base of operations after the Al-Jazeera English office near Tahrir Square was raided by police. Authorities arrested Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed, later charging them with allegedly being part of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organization, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.
Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, was removed from power by the military in July 2013 after mass public protests against his rule. Since Morsi's ouster, Egypt has cracked down heavily on his supporters, and the journalists were accused of being mouthpieces for the Brotherhood. Al-Jazeera and the journalists have denied the allegations, saying they were simply reporting the news.
At the time of the journalists' arrests, Qatar and Egypt had been increasingly at odds over Doha's support of Islamist groups and the Brotherhood. In the time since, Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, has expelled some Brotherhood members and made overtures toward easing tensions with Egypt, though the Qatari government continues to support some Islamists in the region.
At trial, prosecutors used news clips about an animal hospital with donkeys and horses, and another about Christian life in Egypt, as evidence the journalists broke the law. Defense lawyers — and even the judge — dismissed the videos as irrelevant.
Nonetheless, the three men were convicted on June 23, 2014, with Greste and Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years for being found with a spent bullet casing. That ruling was later overturned on appeal by Egypt's Court of Cassation, which said the initial proceedings were marred by violations of the defendants' rights, but a retrial was ordered.
Three Egyptian students accused of supporting the Brotherhood with propaganda and video footage were also sentenced to three years each in the verdict, while two other people were acquitted.
On Saturday, Mohammed received an additional six months for being in possession of a "bullet," according to the text of the court decision carried by the Egyptian state news agency MENA. It wasn't immediately clear why Saturday's verdict referred to a "bullet," rather than a spent bullet casing.
The case has brought a landslide of international condemnation and calls for el-Sissi, who as military chief led the overthrow of Morsi, to intervene. Egypt deported Greste in February, though he remained charged in the case. Fahmy and Mohammed were later released on bail.
Fahmy was asked to give up his Egyptian nationality by Egyptian officials in order to qualify for deportation. It's not clear why he wasn't deported, though Fahmy said he thinks Canada could have pressed Cairo harder on the matter.
Angered by Al-Jazeera's handling of the case, Fahmy has filed a lawsuit in Canada seeking $100 million from the broadcaster, saying that it put the story ahead of employee safety and used its Arabic-language channels to advocate for the Brotherhood. Al-Jazeera has said Fahmy should seek compensation from Egypt.
The European Union and the Committee to Protect Journalists criticized the verdict as well, with the advocacy group saying it was "emblematic of the threats faced by journalists in Egypt," where it says at least 22 journalists are wrongfully behind bars.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.