Mohamed Fahmy trial damages Egypt's reputation globally, but do its leaders care?

When the guilty verdict was read out, a few gasps echoed across the cavernous military courtroom inside Cairo's Tora prison. Mohamed Fahmy's wife, Marwa Omara, began to sob. No longer could she contain the disappointment and anger caused by this 608-day-long ordeal.

Canadian journalist sentenced to 3 years in prison

Canadian Al-Jazeera English journalist Mohammed Fahmy, left, talks to lawyer Amal Clooney before his verdict in a courtroom in Tora prison in Cairo. An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced Fahmy and two other Al-Jazeera English journalists to three years in prison. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

When the guilty verdict was read out, a few gasps echoed across the cavernous military courtroom inside Cairo's Tora prison. Mohamed Fahmy's wife, Marwa Omara, began to sob. No longer could she contain the disappointment and anger caused by this 608-day-long ordeal.

Fahmy and his two colleagues Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste were found guilty of several terrorism-related offences on Saturday morning, including spreading false news and assisting the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement. (Greste was not in court; he was deported to Australia in February.)

The three men were sentenced to three years in prison, plus an extra six months for Mohamed, the Egyptian journalist who the court said was holding onto a bullet casing, so he deserves even more time behind bars.

To much of the outside world who has followed these long and often interrupted court proceedings, there is genuine surprise that Egypt's justice system found the trio guilty, not once but twice.

The evidence presented at the original trial last year consisted of Greste's family photo album and news conferences that had little to do with Egypt. A panel of experts at the retrial earlier this year called into question much of the video evidence the state once again offered up.

Media and human rights groups have denounced the case against the three former Al-Jazeera English journalists. Among those watching this case, there's always been a sense that this was a political trial first and foremost — a chance for Egypt's government to settle scores with Al-Jazeera, the TV news channel bankrolled by Egypt's foe, Qatar, which also backs the Muslim Brotherhood and its deposed president Mohammed Morsi.

Amnesty International called the guilty verdicts "an affront to justice that sound the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt."

But these are chaotic and tumultuous times in Egypt, with militants backed by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) waging a serious battle against Egyptian forces in the Sinai desert. A campaign of bombings and political assassinations has shaken people here in the capital Cairo.

Fines for journalists who contradict officials

Earlier this month, Egypt's president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi approved sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that imposes harsh penalties on anyone convicted of involvement in terrorism. It also imposes hefty fines (roughly $30,000 to $80,000 Cdn) for journalists contradicting official accounts of attacks carried out by militants.

Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, centre, his wife Marwa, left, and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, right, await the verdict earlier Saturday. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

In this climate, there is little sympathy among average Egyptians for a group of journalists who once worked for Al-Jazeera, a network widely viewed here as anti-Egyptian.

Journalists from around the world have stood behind Fahmy and his colleagues, launching the now famous #JournalismIsNotACrime hashtag on social media.

All the negative coverage of the case has damaged Egypt's reputation globally. But you have to wonder whether Egypt's leadership cares?

A prison sentence for these three journalists is unlikely to cause a backlash among Egyptians. While calls for the deportation of Fahmy to Canada grow, you have to remember that it was el-Sissi himself last year who stated he wasn't going to interfere in the impartiality of Egypt's justice system.

Marwa Omara appealed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take action to have her husband set free. But how likely is that during the election campaign? Critics have accused the Harper government of not doing enough in Fahmy's case for many months now.

While there is much disappointment and anger at today's guilty verdict, those who have kept an eye on this difficult period in Egypt's political history probably weren't surprised when the judge read his ruling.

Adel Fahmy 'shocked' at Canadian journalist's 3-year prison sentence in Egypt 1:23

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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