Dashing hopes, Egypt sentences Canadian journalist to 3 years in prison

Mohamed Fahmy, the former Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English, was found guilty of terrorism-related charges, along with two other journalists. Many have viewed the charges and the trial as a sham.

Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy stands behind bars at a court in Cairo in May 2014. Mr. Fahmy has been freed after more than 400 days of imprisonment on highly dubious terrorism-related charges in Egypt.

Three journalists accused of terrorism-related charges in Egypt, including Egyptian-born Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, were sentenced Saturday to three years in prison, to the dismay of their families and lawyers who were hopeful the trio would be released after an almost two-year ordeal.

“The sentence is clearly outrageous and it's almost impossible to describe how absurd the verdict is,” says Gary Caroline, Mr. Fahmy’s lawyer in Canada. “There has been no evidence of any crime having been committed, unless being a journalist is itself a crime in Egypt.” 

Fahmy, along with colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, were working for Al Jazeera when they were arrested in 2013 on charges of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government considers a terrorist organization. They were also charged with spreading false news and operating without a license and were handed sentences ranging from seven to 10 years in a trial largely decried as a sham.

Mr. Greste was deported to Australia earlier this year, while his colleagues were being held in Egypt on bail during a retrial.

Mr. Caroline says they may not serve the whole three years but that will likely be determined in the coming weeks.

"One would expect that at a minimum the 411 days [they already spent in prison] would be deducted but really, truly there is nothing certain in this case or with the Egyptian judiciary.”

Although he has lived in the Middle East for several years, Fahmy maintained roots in Canada, his sole country of citizenship after he relinquished his Egyptian citizenship. His family moved to Canada in 1991 when he was a teenager and his parents still live in Montreal, though they have been in Egypt during most of his trial.

“[He] always had his foot grounded in both cultures and he had a lot of support during his detention from Canadians,” his brother Adel Fahmy said in an email earlier this year from Kuwait, where he is based.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor from Cairo late last month, when a verdict was originally expected, Mohamed Fahmy sounded cautiously hopeful. 

“I have been dreaming literally of that day when I land back home in Canada,” he said. “Even from the time when I was in my cell in solitary confinement in the terrorism wing with no lights … or way to tell time, my way of escapism in my mind was to just reminisce about simply walking in the park and just having that feeling of security and just being a free man in Canada.”

Fahmy’s dreams of freedom will now have to wait. He was expecting to start in September as the Global Reporting Journalist in Residence at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in Vancouver.

“He’s a lot more than his detention,” says Peter Klein, director of the program. “He’s had a career in the Middle East with CNN and the [Los Angeles] Times and a whole bunch of other organizations, he’s written a book about being a translator in Iraq, so I think he’s got a lot to offer.”

Fahmy, along with his wife, Marwa, also started the Fahmy Foundation, which supports free speech and campaigns for other journalists who have been imprisoned while doing their jobs. 

His lawyers again called on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper today to speak to his Egyptian counterpart about Fahmy’s case.

Minister of state for foreign affairs Lynne Yelich released a statement saying, “Canada is disappointed with Mohamed Fahmy’s conviction today. This decision severely undermines confidence in the rule of law in Egypt.”

Canada has been criticized for not acting fast enough on Fahmy’s behalf, in contrast to officials in the United States, Australia, and Britain, which were more vocal in condemning the trio's convictions.

Greste was deported to Australia in February, after Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott actively campaigned for his release by speaking with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi directly. 

Prime Minister Harper said his government raised the issue “at all levels” with Egyptian officials but has refused to say whether he spoke directly with Mr. Sisi, a move Fahmy’s supporters have demanded for months.

Earlier this month, Fahmy told the Monitor that the support he received from Canadians made a “huge impact” as news reports and social media campaigns were translated into Arabic and made their way to the Egyptian press, grabbing the attention of the government there.

“I am proud and so humbled by the way Canadians from across the provinces supported me,” he said. “Close to 50,000 Canadians signed an Avaaz petition, and there’s been so much love on social media, I think that resonated very well for my cause.”

(This story was updated to correct the title of the position that Mr. Fahmy was to start in September.)

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