CAIRO: “I want my full freedom and I want to clear my name; I did not do anything wrong.”
Baher Mohamed, a freelance news producer working for Al-Jazeera English, was arrested in late December 2013 on charges of producing reports containing “false news” that aim to harm nation’s security and aid the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
He released pending a retrial with his colleague Mohamed Fahmy per a February court decision. He is, however, required to check in with a police station near his home everyday to prove he is still in the country.
“During the interrogations, I denied any relation with the Brotherhood. I love my country, Egypt, and it is impossible that I would endanger its security,” added Mohamed.
He and his colleague spent 411 days in jail, during which Mohamed missed the birth and first six months of live of his son Haroon.
“My son Hazem also grew up, and his sister Fairouz now has her own personality; she was talking very little when I was arrested,” Mohamed told The Cairo Post.
Mohamed was shuttled through three prisons during his imprisonment; he lamented “poor conditions” in solitary confinement at the Scorpion Prison where he spend two months and had to sleep on floor in a “small, cold cell” with no sunlight and no watch to know the time.
During investigations, Mohamed also denied accusations by the prosecution of “following Al-Jazeera’s directions” in a TV report conducted on the Tamarod movement, which was anti-Brotherhood and organized many of the June 30 rallies against former president Mohamed Morsi. He said that he only follows journalistic ethics and said there was “no interference” in his work.
“The English administration and editorial policy is separate from that of its Arabic counterpart,” Mohamed said stressing the English’s coverage is “unbiased.”
“In jail, [Morsi’s former assistant, MB member] Essam el-Haddad told me once that Al-Jazeera English’s coverage is annoyingly objective. I was so happy with these remarks, as I believe a journalist should not take sides,” continued Mohamed.
“Al-Jazeera English stood by me very well [in my case],” said Mohamed.
Fahmy wrote an article following his release detailing what he described as “epic negligence” by his employer Al-Jazeera in protecting its jailed journalists by prioritizing another lawsuit filed by the network against Egypt over that of their journalists, which “contributed directly to our sentencing,” he said.
Talking about Al-Jazeera network, Mohamed said that during the case proceedings, the trio of journalists was always careful to make it clear “we work for Al-Jazeera English and not for Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr.”
Especially since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Qatari-owned network has been viewed as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organization by a Cairo court four days before the trio were arrested in 2013.
“I do not want the case to turn political,” Mohamed said. “I was doing my job, and these [Qatari-Egyptian] tensions should be outside our case.”
Mohamed cited his former defense Farag Fathy’s reaction at court when he attacked Al-Jazeera of “selling out its journalists,” as quoted by multiple media.
“He [Fathy] was my lawyer and he traded with my case,” Mohamed added.
Fathy, who had been assigned to defend Mohamed and his colleague Australian journalist Peter Greste abruptly quit as Al-Jazeera’s lawyer in May 2014, making an outburst in court accusing the network of improper behavior, and walking out.
“We’ve never made any secret that the crew did not have their full individual paperwork. None of this justifies criminal proceedings and jail time. In countries that require accreditation, it’s an administrative matter, not criminal,” Al-Jazeera answered Tuesday a question about its journalists’ credentials in Egypt on its website.
In December 2014, Al-Jazeera network suspended its Egyptian channel until it receives broadcast permits, in what was perceived at that time as a positive step in the then-reconciliation efforts between the Doha and Cairo.
The entity responsible for accrediting foreign media workers in Egypt is the State Information Service (SIS.)
Mohamed, Fahmy and Greste were not among AJE staff accredited at the SIS, nor did they obtain 2013 accreditation cards, according to a SIS clarification release issued Dec. 31 following their arrest: “On Dec. 23, 2013, the Al-Jazeera English Channel in Egypt requested to renew the accreditation of its Cairo team, which included two cameramen and one sound specialist, which confirms the non-accreditation of the [three journalists] arrested, and the [channel’s] new request did not include any of them.”
The three were accused of working under invalid credentials, especially after they were stationed to work from the Cairo Marriott Hotel without being registered with the government. “I did not know where is the problem; many foreign journalists in Egypt used to work from a rented room at hotels near Tahrir Square, especially during the 2011 and 2013 incidents,” Mohamed said. He also added “at the time of my arrest, I had a valid press ID from the Cairo Press Center.”
The 3-year bullet
Mohamed was sentenced in June 2014 to 10 years, while his two colleagues received seven-year sentences; the verdict that was overturned by Egypt’s highest appeal court, the Court of Cassation due to what it called “lack of evidences” in its explanation, and granted the request for a retrial.
The difference in the charges and sentencing of three extra years are due to Mohamed’s accusation of possession of a single bullet.
According to Mohamed, he was working as a correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi from 2008 to 2013, where he was assigned to cover Libya’s revolution. “I took the bullet just as a souvenir; I did not even check if it was live.”
“There were pictures screened in the court showing me standing next to weapons, these pictures were also taken in Libya,” Mohamed added.
The Cassation Court, in its reasoning for quashing the June verdict, said that the seized ammunition including Mohamed’s bullet was not examined to verify if it were real.
Freedom or citizenship
Mohamed denied that his Egyptian citizenship deprived him of ‘equal opportunities’ with his colleagues who had foreign passports and were able to apply for deportation per a 2014 decree.
“I believe our case is more about freedom of the press than anything else,” said Mohamed. “I was really happy when my friend and big brother Peter Greste was deported to Australia, and I hope Fahmy as well can be deported to Canada.”
Fahmy ceded his Egyptian citizenship reportedly “against his will” after pressure by officials in order to end his case and be deported. “I do not blame Fahmy for his decision, he was cornered with two difficult choices; either freedom or citizenship,” said Mohamed.
After Greste’s deportation, many called for equal treatment of Mohamed, decried a stark difference between the handling of local and foreign prisoners.
“I want to thank the enormous and amazing international media campaign launched in favor of our case, as well as by the Press Syndicate,” he said.
“My long time in prison taught me patience, as well as did my wife’s incredible strength,” said Mohamed, adding that he plans to write a book about his experience.
Both Mohamed and Fahmy said they face troubles at checkpoints in streets for not having their IDs that are held among the case’s exhibits.
Their next hearing is on March 19 and it is the fourth one since their retrial started on Feb. 12. The last two hearings were adjourned after the requested prosecution witnesses, including police officers and technical experts, did not show up at the court twice in a row.