Al Jazeera journalists (L-R) Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed stand behind bars at a court in Cairo June 1, 2014..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CAIRO - Three Al Jazeera journalists were jailed for seven years in Egypt on Monday after a court convicted them of helping a "terrorist organization" by spreading lies, in a case that has raised questions about the country's respect for media freedoms.
The three, who all deny the charge, include Australian Peter Greste, Al Jazeera's Kenya-based correspondent, and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy, Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English.
The third defendant, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, received an additional three-year jail sentence on a separate charge involving possession of ammunition.
There was a loud gasp in the courtroom as the verdicts were read out. Shaken and near tears, Greste's brother Michael said: "This is terribly devastating. I am stunned, dumbstruck. I've no other words."
The three men had looked upbeat as they entered the courtroom in handcuffs, waving at family members who had earlier told journalists they expected them to be acquitted.
The three were detained in late December and charged with helping a "terrorist organization" by publishing lies that harmed the national interest and supplying money, equipment and information to a group of 17 Egyptians.
All three journalists have been held at Egypt's notorious Tora Prison for six months, in a case that has drawn criticism from Western governments and human rights groups.
The remaining 17 defendants faced charges of belonging to a "terrorist organization", an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been protesting against the government since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July.
Two of the 17 were acquitted, including Anas Beltagi the son of a senior Muslim Brotherhood official who is now in jail.
Four were also sentenced to seven years in jail and a further 11 were sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail.
Western governments and rights groups have voiced concern over freedom of expression in Egypt since Morsi's ouster and the crackdown has raised questions about Egypt's democratic credentials three years after an uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power and raised hopes of greater freedoms.