Minister criticises Egypt over legal action against journalists


The Government has called on Egypt to take urgent action to resolve the position of two British reporters caught up in legal cases against journalists in the country.

Minister for Middle East and North Africa Tobias Ellwood spoke after an Egyptian court sentenced three Al-Jazeera English journalists to three years in prison for broadcasting false news, the latest twist in a long-running trial criticised by press freedom activists.

The case against Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed embroiled their journalism into the wider conflict between Egypt and Qatar following the 2013 military ousting of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

Two British journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, have previously been tried in their absence, and found guilty.

Mr Ellwood said: "I am deeply concerned by the sentences handed down today against journalists in Egypt. These sentences will undermine confidence in Egypt's progress towards strong long term stability based on implementing the rights granted by the Egyptian constitution.

"We have repeatedly raised this case and the restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt with ministers and senior officials. We note that the case can be appealed, and will monitor future developments closely. It is vital that the Egyptian authorities take urgent action to resolve the position of the two British nationals in this case."

Mr Greste, deported in February, spoke to Al-Jazeera from Sydney and criticised the verdict while Mostefa Souag, Al-Jazeera English acting director-general, said it defied logic and common sense.

"The whole case has been heavily politicised and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner," Mr Souag said in a statement.

"There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organisations, and at no point during the long drawn-out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny."

The case began in December 2013 when Egyptian security forces raided the hotel suite used by Al-Jazeera at the time to report from Egypt.

Authorities arrested the trio, later charging them with allegedly being part of Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organisation, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.

Since Mr Morsi was ousted, Egypt has cracked down heavily on his supporters and the journalists were accused of being mouthpieces for the Brotherhood.

Al-Jazeera and the journalists denied the allegations, saying they were simply reporting the news.

The three men were convicted on June 23 2014, with Mr Greste and Mr Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mr Mohammed to 10 years.

The verdict brought international condemnation and calls for newly-elected president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who as military chief led the overthrow of Mr Morsi, to intervene.

Egypt's Court of Cassation, the country's highest appeals court, later ordered their retrial, saying the initial proceedings were marred by violations of their rights.

Egypt deported Mr Greste in February, though he remained charged in the case.