CAIRO – An Egyptian judge released his reasoning for harsh sentences issued against three Al-Jazeera journalists, saying they were brought together "by the devil" to destabilize the country.
The main evidence cited in the 57-page document obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday was footage produced by the journalists that included voices critical of the government and showed the turmoil in Egypt after the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer, as well as interviews with families of those killed in the crackdown on Morsi supporters.
The reasoning was released a month after judge Mohammed Shehata convicted and sentenced the three journalists, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian acting Bureau Chief Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed, to seven years over charges linked to aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government declared a terrorist organization after the military's ouster of Morsi, a Brotherhood leader.
The verdicts raised a storm of international denunciations, including from the United States. Rights groups called the trial a "sham" that sends a chilling message to the press. The defendants and Al-Jazeera denied the charges, saying they were being prosecuted merely for going their jobs.
The three were convicted for spreading false information, faking reports to show that the country was on the verge of civil war, and for aiding the Brotherhood's goal in portraying Egypt as a failed state. Mohammed received an additional three years for his possession of a spent bullet. Three other foreign reporters received a 10-year sentence in absentia. Twelve other co-defendants were sentenced to between seven and ten years, some of them in absentia.
Under Egyptian law, now that the judge has released his reasoning, the defendants can appeal the verdicts before the Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal.
In his reasoning, the judge stated that the defendants — who worked for Al-Jazeera's English-language channel — broadcast their material through a TV station that works "in the service of a banned terrorist organization," referring to the Brotherhood — a blanket condemnation of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. But the document provided no clear link between the Brotherhood and the network, only saying that some members of the group were also operating out of Qatar.
Shehata rejected defense lawyers' arguments that evidence put forward by State Security investigators was insufficient and based on anonymous sources. Shehata said he found the evidence compelling, and found no "false allegations or contradictory statements" in investigators' testimony.
"The defendants used the noble journalistic work for reasons other than its purposes, turning the profession that seeks the truth to one that falsifies the truth," the statement said. "They were brought together by the devil to abuse this profession and turn it into acts against the nation."
In several pages of the reasoning, the judge lay out a detailed account of the evidence cited by investigators. Largely the evidence appears to describe typical reporting.
It cites news footage found on the three that included reports from the protest encampments organized following the overthrow of Morsi and interviews with leading members of the Brotherhood and scenes of burials of hundreds killed when the security agencies violently dispersed the gathering in August last year. The evidence also pointed to footage showing dead bodies in a mosque at the center of the encampment and interviews with the mother of one of those killed.
The evidence also included footage showing protests by Islamist students in support of Morsi and an interview with their spokesmen vowing to continue their rejection of what they called a military coup.
The reports that were part of the evidence also included footage of regular Egyptians complaining of life becoming too expensive, soccer fans complaining that the games have suffered since the turmoil and reports on traffic and sexual harassment in Egypt.
The report included no clear evidence that any of the footage was faked. Instead, it cited editing of the reports.
The investigators' case, accepted by the judge, presents the footage as part of a conspiracy. Shehata wrote that investigators said that Fahmy set up a media center from his makeshift studio and office in a Cairo hotel to disseminate falsified reports. They accused other defendants — students who were also charged in the case — of forming a separate media center to also feed footage to Al-Jazeera.
They accused both groups of receiving orders from the Brotherhood, but none of the evidence in the reasoning appears to support that.
In one case, investigators offered a recorded conversation between three people, two of them allegedly defendants in the case, talking in a phone call about cameras they were provided by Al-Jazeera to film events on the ground. With its offices closed in Egypt, Al-Jazeera's Arabic service in particular has largely been relying on user-generated videos for its news reports.
The judge's reasoning also said Mohammed, the Al-Jazeera English team's producer, confessed to investigators that Al-Jazeera's central office in Doha told him to present reports that "paint Egypt in a negative light."
Fahmy's brother, Adel Fahmy, said the judge's reasoning report lays out a story that authorities "have fabricated without providing any evidence."
"This is further proof that the case is politicized," he said.
With the release of the judge's reasoning, the defendants have one month to present their appeal, and it is up to the Cassation Court to accept it or not. The court does not rule on the validity of evidence, however, only on whether the judge observed the law and proper procedure in his verdict. The court can order a retrial or uphold the sentences.