Three Al Jazeera journalists were jailed for seven years in Egypt on Monday after a court convicted them of helping a “terrorist organisation” by spreading lies, in a case that has raised questions about the country’s respect for media freedoms.
The three, who all deny the charges, include Australian Peter Greste, Al Jazeera’s Kenya-based correspondent, and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy, Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English.
The third defendant, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, received an additional three-year jail sentence on a separate charge involving possession of ammunition.
There was a loud gasp in the courtroom as the verdicts were read out and some relatives of the defendants broke down. Shaken and near tears, Greste’s brother Michael said: “This is terribly devastating. I am stunned, dumbstruck. I’ve no other words.”
The three men had looked upbeat as they entered the courtroom in handcuffs, waving at family members who had earlier told journalists they expected them to be acquitted.
One Dutch woman and two Britons were sentenced to 10 years in absentia on the same charges of aiding a “terrorist group”, seen as a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera said the rulings defied “logic, sense and any semblance of justice”.
“There is only one sensible outcome now. For the verdict to be overturned, and justice to be recognized by Egypt,” Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said in a statement.
Judicial sources told Reuters the verdicts could be appealed before a higher court and a pardon was still possible.
Egypt’s public prosecutor last week ordered the release of another Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Al Shamy, on health grounds after he spent more than 130 days on hunger strike.
The three were detained in late December and charged with helping the “terrorist organisation” by publishing lies that harmed national security and supplying money, equipment and information to a group of Egyptians.
Egyptian officials have said the case is not linked to freedom of expression and that the journalists raised suspicions by operating without proper accreditation.
At least 14 Egyptian defendants faced charges of belonging to the “terrorist organisation”. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been protesting against the government since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July.
Two of the Egyptians were acquitted, including Anas Al Beltagi the son of a senior Muslim Brotherhood official who is now in jail and could face the death sentence. Four were sentenced to seven years in jail.
All three Al Jazeera journalists have been held at Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison for six months, in a case that has drawn criticism from Western governments and human rights groups.
Western governments and rights groups have voiced concern over freedom of expression in Egypt since Mursi’s ouster and the crackdown has raised questions about Egypt’s democratic credentials three years after an uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power and raised hopes of greater freedoms.
Britain said it was summoning the Egyptian ambassador to protest about the rulings.
“I am appalled by the guilty verdicts handed down today against Egyptian and international journalists in Egypt,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.
The ruling came a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry met newly elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Cairo and discussed the political transition the country.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters her government was “deeply dismayed that any sentence was imposed” and was “appalled by the severity of it”.
The Dutch foreign ministry summoned the Egyptian ambassador over the sentences, which included a 10-year term in absentia for Dutch journalist Rena Netjes.
One of the defence lawyers, Shaaban Saeed, said there had been no respect for due process during the trial.
“We were expecting innocence but there is no justice in this country. Politics is what judges,” Saeed said.
The government has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. The Brotherhood says it is a peaceful organisation.
The Gulf state of Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, backs the Muslim Brotherhood. Its ties with Egypt have been strained since Sisi ousted Mursi last year after mass protests against his troubled one-year rule.
Al Jazeera’s Cairo offices have been closed since July 3 when security forces raided them hours after Mursi’s ouster.