How three ‘ordinary journalists’ were caught between Egypt and Qatar

After a year in jail, three Al Jazeera journalists accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood could be released after Egypt’s highest court accepted requests for an appeal and granted all three a retrial. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Borzou Daragahi of the Financial Times about the political and financial reasons behind the jailings and how soon a possible release would be.

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    Earlier today, I spoke with Borzou Daragahi. He's been covering the journalists' detention for The Financial Times in Cairo.

    Borzou, start by telling us what happened in court today.

  • BORZOU DARAGAHI, Financial Times:

    First of all, I should just give a caveat.

    The journalists were not allowed into the courtroom. This is based on speaking to defense attorneys, as well as to members of the families of the defendants who were allowed into court. They were — you know, apparently, it was a very short session, less than half-an-hour, in which the defense lawyers were allowed to plea for their clients, to argue on behalf of their clients and give various arguments as to why the case didn't stand up to legal scrutiny.

    This is a court of cassation. In the Egyptian legal system, its sole role is to scrutinize court decisions to see if they measure up to legal standards. And then the case gets referred to a court of appeals. At the end of session, there was about an hour where the judge was deliberating. And he came back.

    We were told by court decisions — we never actually saw the judge — that the case had been vacated, so to speak, the verdict had been canceled, and a retrial ordered.


    Was there any explanation on why these individuals were not let out on bail?


    There was no explanation of anything. There was no explanation as to the court's reasoning for vacating the previous June court decision, and there was no explanation to why they weren't released on bail.

    There was no real communication between the court officials and the public, or with the defendants, who were not in the court session, or to the defense lawyers.


    So, when does the retrial start?


    We're not sure of that exactly.

    From my understanding, in speaking to the defense attorneys, within a week, the court of appeals will announce a trial date, which should start within a month. So that means that there's no chance for these guys to be released from prison on bail until that first court hearing, which should begin within a month.


    How much of this is political vs. legal? There's a lot of speculation that this trial or the retrial hangs on the fate of the relationship between Egypt and Qatar, who owns Al-Jazeera.


    Well, if you talk to Egyptian officials, they're very strident about the integrity of the Egyptian judicial system and the independence of that judiciary.

    Many people are very skeptical about those claims. They see a lot of politics in the prosecution of this and other cases. And, you know, based on the comments of certain officials, yes, this diplomatic spat between Egypt and Qatar is part of the problem in getting these guys freed and getting them out of jail and ending this whole charade.

    I don't know what else to call it, because these guys are clearly not guilty of anything, other than being ordinary journalists. So, you know, I mean, it seems like that will be a big actor. But it's not just a diplomatic dispute. There's also billions of dollars at stake here, because the Qatari government, when the Muslim Brotherhood was dominant here, invested billions of dollars in the Egyptian Central Bank, and now wants that money back.

    In addition, the Qatari government has sued the — or, rather, Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatari government, has sued Egypt for $140 million for damages pertaining to this particular case and other matters. And so there's this big financial dispute, as well as a political dispute.


    All right.

    So, the Egyptian president could have gotten involved, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. He said that this is a court that should retain its independence. How independent is this particular court that this retrial was granted under?


    Well, many people that I have spoken to, legal professionals in Egypt, say that the court of cassation is known for being relatively free of politics, relatively independent, has a rather high relative degree of integrity compared to other parts of the Egyptian judiciary and legal system.

    So it has a very good reputation. But, in recent months, recent weeks, actually, we have had leaks of audiotapes, rather credible leaks, showing high-level members of the generals around Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi openly discussing with each other how they would manipulate this court case or this legal matter or that.

    And these have been — these have been aired on various Internet stations and so on. And these have really raised questions about just how much and how the Egyptian judiciary system is an independent or not.


    All right, Borzou Daragahi, thank you so much for joining us.