An Egyptian judge on Saturday handed down unexpectedly harsh verdicts in the trial of three journalists from the Al Jazeera English news channel, sentencing them to at least three years in prison on charges that human rights advocates have repeatedly dismissed as political in nature.
The journalists, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, had said they were expecting to be exonerated or sentenced to time already served. Egyptian officials have strongly suggested they were eager to be rid of the case, which had become a source of international embarrassment for the government, highlighting its sweeping crackdown on opponents as well as freedom of expression after the military takeover in 2013.
But on Saturday, the judge, Hassan Farid, said that the men, who had all previously worked for other internationally respected news organizations, were not in fact journalists because they lacked the necessary credentials. And he upheld what rights advocates said was among many baseless accusations leveled during their trial: that the journalists had “broadcast false news” about Egypt on Al Jazeera.
Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohamed, who had been free on bail, were remanded into custody following the hearing on Saturday, their relatives said. Mr. Greste, an Australian citizen, was deported in February under a presidential decree that allows the deportation of foreigners convicted of crimes.
Mr. Fahmy, who holds Canadian citizenship, could still be deported under Mr. Sisi’s decree, but Mr. Mohamed, an Egyptian citizen, would not be eligible. The journalists said before the trial that they would appeal any sentence.
“I’m completely shocked,” said Adel Fahmy, Mr. Fahmy’s brother. “Everything was pointing towards exoneration today. I was coming here for good news. They keep on disappointing us with this unbelievable judicial system. It’s unacceptable.”
The three men were arrested in December 2013 and labeled by Egyptian broadsheets as the “Marriott Cell,” for the hotel which they had used as their bureau in Cairo. Their arrests were among thousands carried out by the government after the military ouster in July 2013 of Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egypt’s first fairly elected president.
The trial was a showcase for flaws in Egypt’s judicial system. Prosecutors made incoherent presentations in support of their case, and offered no evidence for their most explosive accusation, that the journalists had colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Analysts have said that journalists were seen as victims of the damaged relations between Egypt and the government of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera and is a strong supporter of the Brotherhood.
Earlier this summer, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at least 18 journalists were imprisoned in Egypt – the highest number since the group began keeping records in 1990.