Monday, February 02, 2015

Al Jazeera Journalists' Release

Peter Greste – one of three Al Jazeera journalists to be imprisoned in Cairo in December 2013 – was released yesterday and deported to Cyprus, after exactly 400 days in prison. Greste, an Australian, along with Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, had been sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of aiding a terrorist group despite widespread international condemnation of the trial; whilst Egyptian national Baher Mohamed had been sentenced to an extra three years for also possessing a single bullet. In all three cases, the sentences had been overturned and a retrial ordered by the Court of Cassation. President Sissi had acknowledged the negative light in which the sentences have been seen abroad and in November he passed a new decree allowing him to deport foreign defendants, seemingly to deal with the case. As a result, Greste’s deportation has now been possible and it looks likely Fahmy will also be deported in the next few days; both Fahmy’s fiancé and Canada’s foreign ministry have reported that Fahmy’s deportation is in the final stages, although no official statement has been made on the fate of either Fahmy or Mohamed. Mohamed, however, does not possess a foreign passport, making his release much more complicated and uncertain.

The timing of Greste’s release is surprising given that militant attacks in Sinai on Thursday had killed over 30 members of the Egyptian security service and left over 100 wounded and Sissi’s government seems as threatened as ever by the prospect of Islamist attacks. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the ‘State of Sinai’, also known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis[1]  - a group who have pledged allegiance to ISIS according to the US-based organisation, SITE Intelligence but who have also in the past denied having any affiliation with ISIS. A statement signed by the group and released on their twitter account, claimed the attacks were carried out under the title “We Will Have Revenge” for the women and girls held in government prisons. In response, Sissi claimed that “we will avenge everyone who sacrificed his life for his country” and a statement was released by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces on Facebook claiming that operations against Sinai militants will be stepped up. So the recent increase in tension and bloodshed between Sissi’s government and the Muslim extremist groups makes the timing of Greste’s release unusual, particularly given Al Jazeera’s perceived past support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian authorities see the Brotherhood and extremist groups as having no distinction. This has led Sissi to blame the Brotherhood for the attacks in Sinai, despite the State of Sinai claiming responsibility.

There was a ruling today, by the Egyptian court, to uphold the death sentences of 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood charged with the killing of at least 11 police officers in the town of Kerdasa, on 14th August 2013. Kerdasa is a small town near Cairo, in the Giza Governate, an area where Morsi had received significant support. The attack occurred following Egyptian forces violently dispersing protesters gathered in Cairo in support of former president Morsi – who was ousted on the 3rd July 2013. Militants fired rockets at the police station before raiding it and killing the police officers. The officers’ bodies showed signs of mutilation and torture. The initial sentence was issued against 188 defendants in December before it was sent to the Grand Mufti for review. Of those, two were acquitted and one (a minor) given a ten year sentence, whilst two others had passed away, leaving 183 facing death sentences. 34 of the sentences upheld were done so in absentia. Defence lawyers claim that the defendants were held in metal cages during the trial and excluded from the courtroom and also that any effort to find individual guilt was overlooked.

[1] ‘Supporters of the Holy House’ or ’Supporters of Jerusalem’ – A Sunni extremist group, based in Sinai, that emerged after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. They initially focused on attacking Israeli interests but have subsequently turned their attentions to Sissi’s government, including an assassination attempt on interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim, in Sept 2013, and the October attacks on Egyptian military that killed over 30 soldiers.

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