(New York) – Egyptian authorities should drop all charges against the two Al Jazeera English journalists conditionally released on February 12, 2015, and free all other unjustly jailed journalists. Prosecutors have presented no evidence of wrongdoing by the Al Jazeera journalists, and the prosecution of journalists in general is a violation of basic rights protected by both Egypt’s constitution and international law. At least 9 and possibly as many as 67 journalists remain in prison in Egypt, according to human rights and media freedom groups, including some held for months without trial.
A Cairo criminal court allowed the release of Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed following a January 1 decision by Egypt’s highest appeals court, the Court of Cassation, to quash their convictions and order a retrial. The court released Fahmy, a Canadian, who recently relinquished his Egyptian nationality, on bail of 250,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$32,800) and required him and Mohamed, an Egyptian, who was released without bail, to report to the police daily while awaiting their retrial, according to media reports. Authorities released and deported a third Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste, an Australian, on February 1.
“Releasing Fahmy and Mohamed was a positive move, if overdue, but they should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The authorities should drop the charges against them and other Egyptian journalists locked up simply for doing their job.”
In its ruling quashing the convictions and sentences – 10 years for Mohamed and 7 for Fahmy and Greste – the Court of Cassation strongly criticized the trial court verdicts. A month later, authorities deported Greste under a November 2014 presidential decree allowing the deportation of foreign defendants whenever “supreme national interests” warrant. Fahmy subsequently renounced his Egyptian citizenship to seek deportation under the same decree. But his release conditions appear to preclude the possibility that he can leave Egypt, one of his lawyers told the Arab21 news website.
During the February 12, 2015, court session, Fahmy said that an unnamed “high-ranking security official” had twice asked him why he had not renounced his Egyptian citizenship, telling him that “nationality is in the heart and not on a piece of paper” and that the authorities wanted the case to be over, according to a report on the session on Aswat Masriya website.
The arrest and unjust imprisonment of the Al Jazeera journalists rightly prompted international condemnation, but other journalists imprisoned in Egypt deserve the same attention, Human Rights Watch said. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has named nine other journalists detained on charges such as “publishing false news” or serving prison terms in connection with their reporting since the military took power on July 3, 2013, and ousted President Mohamed Morsy. According to the CPJ, seven other journalists have been killed in the line of work, but the Egyptian authorities have not conducted independent investigations into any of their deaths. The CPJ ranked Egypt third among the most dangerous countries for journalists in 2013, and Reporters Without Borders named it one of the five worst countries for jailing journalists in 2014.
Egyptian watchdog organizations say the number of journalists in prison is considerably higher. In November, the Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (EORF) said it had documented the arrests of 92 journalists since the military took power, 67 of whom were still in prison. The group said it had documented six military trials of journalists in the months following Morsy’s ouster.
Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, known as Shawkan, a journalist arrested while covering the violent Rabaa Square protest dispersal in August 2013 for the French international newswire service Demotix, has been held without trial for more than 550 days. Earlier in February 2015, following Greste’s release and deportation, Shawkan wrote a letter titled “Rescue Me,” expressing his frustration over the authorities’ unwillingness to release journalists other than those with foreign nationality or the backing of major international media outlets.
Another journalist, Ahmed Gamal Ziyada, a photographer for the online news website Yaqeen, was arrested by police on December 28, 2013, while he covered student protests at Al Azhar University in Cairo. Yaqeen told the CPJ that authorities accused Ziyada in April 2014 of participating in an illegal demonstration and assaulting a police officer. Reporters Without Borders said police also accused him of carrying a firearm. In August, Ziyada went on hunger strike. He is now on trial alongside 76 students, his lawyer told France 24.
“Egypt’s government needs to wake up to the damage it is doing to the country’s reputation by locking up journalists and other media workers simply for doing their job,” Whitson said. “Attacking the messenger is never good policy and it is one the Egyptian authorities should abandon.”