CAIRO (AFP) ― An Egyptian court jailed three Al-Jazeera journalists, including Australia’s award-winning Peter Greste on Monday, a ruling that sparked global outrage and a U.S. call for them to be pardoned.
Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy each got seven year terms, while Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed received two sentences ― one of seven years and another for three.
Eleven defendants tried in absentia, including one Dutch journalist and two British journalists, were handed 10-year jail terms.
The verdict provoked international outcry and raised fears of growing media restrictions in Egypt.
Australia expressed shock and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of “a chilling and draconian sentence,” while the White House urged President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to pardon the journalists involved.
“We call on the Egyptian government to pardon these individuals or commute their sentences so that they can be released immediately and (to) grant clemency for all politically motivated sentences,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay said journalism “is not a crime” and urged Egypt to “promptly release” those jailed for doing their job.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it.”
“It is hard to credit that the court in this case could have reached this conclusion,” she said, adding Canberra would look at possible intervention in the case.
Al-Jazeera chief Mustafa Sawaq said in Doha: “We condemn ... this kind of unjust verdict. ... We are shocked.”
Greste’s brother Andrew said he was devastated.
“It is definitely not what we were expecting. I was hoping for acquittal ... we will continue to fight for his freedom,” he said.
Several countries announced plans to summon Egyptian ambassadors to protest what many called an unjust verdict.
The Australian Associated Press news agency said officials were seeking to summon the Egyptian deputy envoy Tuesday, while Foreign Minister Bishop planned to speak directly with Cairo.
“We are going to register a formal diplomatic-level request with the new president of Egypt to see if he can intervene in the proceedings at this stage,” AAP quoted Bishop as telling Australia’s Seven Network.
In The Hague, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said he had summoned Egypt’s ambassador and would raise the matter with his EU colleagues after Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, tried in absentia, “did not get a fair trial.”
London said it was “completely appalled” by the verdict in absentia against the two Britons and was summoning Cairo’s envoy.
Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork said the verdict showed “how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President el-Sissi.”
On Sunday an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences for more than 180 Islamists including Brotherhood chief Mohamed Badie.
Pillay slammed such mass trials and sentences as “obscene”, and urged Egypt to review its laws.
But Egypt insisted the “judiciary enjoys full independence” and said the convicts “still have the right to appeal”.
A presidency official said Sisi “legally can’t (pardon them)... a pardon can be given only after the final court ruling”.
Of the six defendants in custody along with Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed, four were sentenced to seven years and two were acquitted.
“They will pay for this, they will pay for this. I promise!” Fahmy shouted from the dock upon hearing the verdict.
All of the defendants had been accused of aiding the blacklisted Brotherhood and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi by “spreading false news.”
Since the army ousted Morsi in July 2013, the authorities have been incensed by the Qatari network’s coverage of their deadly crackdown on his supporters.
They consider Al-Jazeera to be the voice of Qatar and accuse Doha -- which has denounced the repression of the Islamist movement‘s supporters which has killed more than 1,400 people -- of backing the Brotherhood.