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NEWS

Al-Jazeera Ruling in Egypt Makes a Mockery of the Right to a Fair Trial

editor - September 1, 2015

The world’s press has reacted witFlag_of_Egypt.svgh outrage to the harsh prison sentences handed down earlier this month by Egypt’s courts to the three Al-Jazeera English journalists arrested in Cairo in December 2013. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were sentenced to three years in prison (Greste in absentia) after being found guilty of broadcasting false news and operating without a press license, despite each having already spent over 400 days in prison. The case has highlighted, yet again, the way that the Egyptian government’s disrespect for free speech and contempt for a fair and effective criminal justice system continues to undermine the legitimacy of its rule. All three journalists had originally been convicted in June 2014, but were granted a retrial after they appealed their convictions. Now however, barring a pardon from President el-Sisi, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed must return to prison to serve their sentences. The case has become an embarrassment for the Egyptian President, who is reported to be acutely aware what the trials have done to Egypt's international reputation. Egypt is currently considered one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom, with this guilty verdict and lengthy sentence being considered by many to be the end product of a Kafkaesque show trial. Peter Greste, who was deported from Egypt to his native Australia in early February, spoke of his outrage at the verdicts and heartbreak for his colleagues who would continue to be subjected to appalling conditions in Tora prison. “The prosecution presented no evidence that we did anything wrong and so for us to be convicted as terrorists on no evidence at all is frankly outrageous,” he told ABC television. “We have to keep fighting." Having spent over a year imprisoned with his colleagues due to politically motivated charges, Peter knows all too well how taking away a person’s liberty devastates individual’s lives, families and communities: hence the international consensus and fundamental legal principle that every accused person  has the right to a fair trial. In countries where the powerful wield criminal law as a weapon against their opponents, justice is reduced from an independent arbiter and enforcer of common values to yet another political battlefield. If ruling elites show such disregard for the rule of law, why should ordinary citizens bother to comply with the laws of the land? In Egypt, it would appear that powerful friends are more important than truth and justice. The corrosive effect of such corruption clearly demonstrates that the international community needs to refocus the development agenda on building respect for the rule of law and for fair and effective criminal justice systems. Without this, however rich they may be in financial terms, societies remain less stable, less safe and a poorer place to live for all their citizens. Of course, everyone can understand the hopes of the journalists' families that, ultimately, all three will be pardoned by Egypt’s president. For the sake of these journalists, let us hope that this happens, but let us not pretend it would be “justice” - not least because the Al-Jazeera Three are just a small fraction of the hundreds of ordinary people convicted in post-revolutionary Egypt without the barest illusion of due process, for reasons of political expediency. In June 2015 we, alongside other lawyers and NGOs, signed a letter expressing concern about the judiciary in Egypt. Politicians should not be the ultimate arbiters in criminal trials; that role should be reserved to impartial and independent tribunals.

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