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An Egyptian court on Wednesday handed a six month prison sentence to an Al-Jazeera Television journalist convicted of harming the country's national interest by allegedly fabricating torture scenes for a documentary, court officials said.
The pan-Arab station's producer, Howaida Taha, 43, was briefly arrested and her 50 videotapes confiscated at the Cairo airport in January. Taha, who is currently in Qatar, was not in the Cairo court for the verdict. She was also ordered to pay a fine of US$5,200.
"It's an unjust, vindictive ruling by the government's judiciary as there is no independent judiciary in my country," Taha, a native Egyptian, told The Associated Press by phone from Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha after the verdict came in. "It's a political verdict, not a legal one."
Al-Jazeera reported the verdict but did not immediately comment on it. Aref Al-Hejjawi, director of Al-Jazeera documentary programs, told AP the station was "waiting to hear" from its lawyer.
Taha has denied the charges and said she obtained necessary permissions to film the documentary.
"I have no regrets at all, if I have the chance, I will reveal the (Egyptian) government's corruption and oppression," said Taha, known for years of criticism of the Egyptian regime in her columns in the London-based pan Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
Taha, whose husband and three children remain in Egypt, said she was consulting with her lawyer on her next move. To appeal the verdict, she would have to return to Egypt where she would be immediately arrested and taken to prison.
Taha's two-hour documentary entitled "Beyond the Sun" was aired on Al-Jazeera TV in April, since Taha had kept copies of the tapes confiscated by authorities.
The documentary contained interviews with people who said they were victims of torture at Egyptian police stations, as well as some reconstruction scenes with actors displaying methods of torture. She also interviewed human rights activists and former senior police officials.
Al-Jazeera is watched by millions of Arab viewers and has aggressively covered terrorist attacks in Egypt as well as anti-government demonstrations and activities of opposition groups. But the TV channel has also been accused of bias by Washington and has had its reporters barred by Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Rights groups say torture, including sexual abuse, is routinely conducted in Egyptian police stations. The government, sensitive about the issue, denies systematic torture, but has investigated several officers on allegations of abuse. Some were convicted and sentenced to prison.
In November, several Egyptian bloggers posted a video showing a man naked from the waist down being sodomized with a stick. The man was later identified as Imad el-Kabir, 21, a bus driver. The case sparked a public uproar in Egypt, and two police officers, accused of sexually assaulting him, are currently on trial.
Ahead of May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the Committee to Protect Journalists included Egypt - which it said launched 85 criminal cases against the press between 2004 and 2006 - on its "Top 10 Backsliders" list of deteriorating press freedoms.
"The rapid retreats in nations where the media have thrived demonstrate just how easily the fundamental right to press freedom can be taken away," said CPJ's chief Joel Simon.
The oldest watchdog group in Cairo, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said the verdict against Taha was a "new setback to freedom of opinion and expression." In January, the group had said Taha's arrest reflected "an ongoing policy of terrorizing the voices that are revealing torture in Egypt."