TIME Palestine

Israel Hits More Than 70 Targets in Gaza, as Ban and Kerry Call for Truce

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon speak to reporters in Cairo
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak to reporters in Cairo on July 21, 2014 Reuters

The U.N. Secretary General and the U.S. Secretary of State lament renewed carnage and call for a cease-fire

Israeli warplanes struck more than 70 targets in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Tuesday morning, including a stadium, five mosques and the home of a late Hamas military chief, reports the Associated Press.

The attacks came as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accelerated diplomatic efforts for an immediate cease-fire.

The Israel Defense Forces through its Twitter account on Tuesday said that it had killed 183 “terrorists” and struck at more than 1,300 “terror sites” in Gaza during the two-week-old Operation Protective Edge. However, according to Human Rights Watch, many of the attacks have been made on civilian structures, including a refugee camp and hundreds of homes, leading to thousands of displacements.

Some 584 Palestinians and 29 Israelis have been killed during the conflict. The U.N. estimates that 75% of Palestinian deaths are of civilians, with scores of women and children among them.

“We must find a way to stop the violence,” said Ban at a joint press conference in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, with Kerry. “So many people have died. As [Secretary Kerry] just said, it’s mostly [the] civilian population, women and children. It’s very sad, it’s tragic.”

Kerry called on Hamas to accept a cease-fire framework tabled by Egyptian authorities earlier this month.

“Israel has accepted that cease-fire proposal,” said Kerry, who landed in Egypt on Monday after being dispatched to the region by President Barack Obama on Sunday night. “So only Hamas now needs to make the decision to spare innocent civilians from this violence.”

Despite the heavy loss of Palestinian lives in the fighting, Kerry described Israel’s military operation in Gaza as “appropriate” and a “legitimate effort to defend itself.”

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities acknowledged to local media on Monday that they could not account for the whereabouts of one of their soldiers but that he may have been killed after an attack on an armored vehicle over the weekend.

The admission comes a day after Israel’s envoy to the U.N. dismissed claims made by Hamas on television Sunday that they had kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

TIME Egypt

Egypt: 7 Jailed for Life for Public Sexual Assaults

Egyptian men sentenced to life in prison for sexual assaults on women during a number of public rallies in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, attend their trial at a court in Cairo, July 16, 2014.
Egyptian men sentenced to life in prison for sexual assaults on women during a number of public rallies in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, attend their trial at a court in Cairo, July 16, 2014. Aly Hazza—El Shorouk/AP

Three of the men received multiple life sentences as Egypt's new government cracks down on sex offenders

Correction appended 9:25am ET

A court in Egypt has sentenced seven men to life in prison for committing sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square, the Associated Press reports.

Three of the men received multiple life sentences for taking part in different assaults. These are the first heavy sentences against sexual abusers since Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, vowed to toughen penalties in June.

The sentences stem from four separate incidents of sexual assault, including one that occurred during celebrations for Sisi’s inauguration.

This last assault may refer to an incident during the June 8 celebrations, when a video emerged showing a young woman being stripped naked and beaten by a crowd in Tahrir Square.

The timing of the brutal attack was particularly embarrassing given Sisi’s election promise to end the frequent assaults occurring in Tahrir Square.

The president vowed during his campaign to “restore the sense of shame” to sexual abusers. Before Sisi’s inauguration, the interim president Adly Mansour said physical and verbal sexual harassment was punishable by six-month to five-year prison sentences.

Egypt’s long-standing problems with sexual assault came into focus following the 2011 uprisings which ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. Though women protested shoulder to shoulder with men they were persistently subjected to sexual assaults during the mass protests in Tahrir Square. CBS News journalist Lara Logan was among the victims of assault in 2011.

The original version of this story, based on an Associated Press report, misstated the number of men sentenced. It was 7.

[AP]

TIME Israel

Israel Targets Homes of Senior Hamas Leaders

Smoke rises following what police said was an Israeli air strike in Gaza City July 16, 2014.
Smoke rises following what police said was an Israeli air strike in Gaza City July 16, 2014. Ahmed Zakot—Reuters

The Palestinian death toll in nine days of fighting rose to 204, with some 1,450 wounded, Palestinian health officials said

(GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip) — Israel on Wednesday intensified air attacks on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip following a failed Egyptian cease-fire effort, targeting the homes of four senior leaders of the Islamic militant movement. It also told tens of thousands of residents to leave Gaza’s border areas ahead of more strikes.

The Palestinian death toll in nine days of fighting rose to 204, with some 1,450 wounded, Palestinian health officials said. On the Israeli side, one man was killed and several people were wounded since the fighting erupted on July 8.

The renewed bombings came a day after Israel initially accepted an Egyptian truce proposal that called for a halt of hostilities. That was to be followed by talks on the terms of a longer-term cease-fire, including easing Gaza’s seven-year-old border blockade by Israel and Egypt.

Hamas rejected the plan and instead launched more rockets at Israel. The militant group views a significant easing of the blockade as key to its survival, but does not believe Egypt’s current rulers — who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo last year — can be fair brokers.

As Cairo’s effort collapsed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Hamas will pay a high price for rejecting the truce offer.

The website of the Gaza Interior Ministry said Israel warplanes carried out dozens of air strikes before dawn Wednesday, targeting 30 houses, including those of senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar, Jamila Shanti, Fathi Hamas and Ismail Ashkar.

Zahar was a key figure in Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, while the other three were members of the Palestinian parliament elected in 2006. Many Hamas leaders have gone into hiding since the beginning of the Israeli offensive.

Alongside the air strikes, Israel also told tens of thousands of residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Zeitoun and Shijaiyah neighborhoods of Gaza City, all near the border with Israel, to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. Wednesday. The warnings were delivered in automated phone calls, text messages and leaflets dropped from planes.

The Israeli military said in its message that large numbers of rockets were launched from these areas and that Israel plans to bomb these locations.

“Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately, endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families,” the message said.

On Wednesday morning, hundreds of residents of Zeitoun and Shijaiyah were seen walking in the streets, carrying small bags with belongings.

Older children carried smaller ones, in their arms or on their backs. Some of the women and children cried, looking terrified.

The Wafa Rehabilitation Center in Shijaiyah, which cares for 15 disabled and elderly patients, received several calls demanding the patients evacuate, said its director, Basman Ashi.

He said an Israel shell hit near the building, causing damage to the second floor, but no injuries. Ashi said he won’t evacuate because his elderly patients have nowhere to go.

Four foreign volunteers — from England, the U.S., France and Sweden — have set up camp at the rehabilitation center to deter the military from targeting it.

English volunteer Rina Andolini, 32, said the patients range in age from 12 to over 70 and none can walk or move without assistance. She said there are also 17 Palestinian staff members.

Andolini said the patients are living in a constant state of fear, intensified by the Israeli tank shelling from across the border.

When asked about the situation at the rehabilitation center, the office of the Israeli military spokesman said its residents “have been asked repeatedly to leave.”

“There is a rocket launching site in the area,” the military said, adding that Gaza militants use the center to hide “behind civilians.”

TIME Israel

Why the Israel-Gaza Cease-Fire Failed

Hamas felt it wasn't consulted properly by the Egyptians brokering the truce — and that it could have been offered more

+ READ ARTICLE

The morning started with a slight patina of optimism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his cabinet at 7 a.m., two hours before an Egyptian-proposed cease-fire with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza was due to take effect.

They voted in favor of the cease-fire, with Netanyahu’s two most prominent hard-line coalition partners — Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett — voting against.

By 9 a.m., the Israel Air Force (IAF) strikes on the Gaza Strip ceased, exactly one week since the operation it dubbed Protective Edge began. But in the tense hours that followed, Hamas made it clear through various venues that it has no intention of holding its fire just yet, and sent more than 30 rockets careening into southern and central Israel. The Iron Dome shot several of them down, but an Israeli soldier was lightly injured by shrapnel from a rocket explosion in the town of Sderot, and two additional rockets exploded in the Ashkelon area, causing fires. Hamas also said it fired a Syrian-made rocket at Haifa, Haaretz reported.

Netanyahu warned that Israel’s appetite for restraint wouldn’t last long. “We accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal to give an opportunity to demilitarize the Gaza Strip from rockets. If Hamas continues to fire at Israel, Israel will have the international legitimacy to take action,” he said at midday.

Soon after, the IAF carried out a single air strike on the northern Gaza Strip, with no causalities reported.

It might be hard to fathom why Hamas leaders would blow an opportunity for a cease-fire, given the 192 Gazans killed and over 1,400 wounded in the past week, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The reason: the proposal fashioned by Egypt was not discussed with Hamas leaders, who feel it suits Israel far more than them.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders say they were not consulted, and the proposal does not hit on some of the basic elements they outlined as a condition of a truce. Specifically, they are asking for an end to the “siege” of Gaza, an amorphous term that refers to the economic and physical isolation Israel has sought to impose on the territory, in an effort to squeeze Hamas and potentially turn frustrated Gazans against it.

Israel is also holding in administrative detention about 50 Hamas-affiliated Palestinians who were released in the Gilad Shalit deal of 2011, and who were rearrested in mid-June following the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers — the event that sparked the current spiral in bloodshed.

“Nobody consulted them from the Egyptian side, so that’s why they were so unhappy with this,” explains Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza. In contrast, he notes, in the November 2012 operation dubbed Pillar of Defense, officials working with Egypt’s Islamist then President Mohamed Morsi worked closely with Hamas to come up with a proposal for a cease-fire.

But that was then. The government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is far less sympathetic to Hamas than his Muslim Brotherhood predecessor, and this time, his office dealt directly with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas instead. In short, Hamas was insulted.

Most importantly, Abusada explains, Hamas feels it deserves a better deal in exchange for the qualitative ante it has just upped, in shooting longer-range rockets and flying a drone into Israel, from which it claims to have photographed Israel’s defense complex in Tel Aviv.

“Hamas feels that that if it agrees to this, it hasn’t achieved anything more that it achieved in 2012. They feel they’ve done much better in this round of fighting … and so we should get a much better deal in order to end the fighting,” says Abusada, who studies the Islamic movement.

At the same time, he notes, the price that Hamas will pay for continuing to refuse a cease-fire is high: it will annoy the Egyptians, lose points with war-weary Gazans, and could eat away at the international sympathy that has built up for Gaza amid the horrifying footage of a death and destruction.

“Hamas has not made its final decision, and is engaging in its own internal dialogue now,” Abusada adds. “My hunch is that Hamas is going to accept the cease-fire, eventually, because to say no to the Egyptians will cost them too much.”

But it may be too late — today, anyway. At about 2:30 p.m., Netanyahu authorized a resumption of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, and made the decision public soon afterward.

“Since the cease-fire started at 9, we’ve have dozens of rockets on Israel, and it’s clear the other side rejected the Egyptian proposal,” an Israeli official tells TIME. “We had five hours of giving it a chance. It’s clearly unsustainable that Israel would hold its fire any longer and let its cities be bombarded by rockets.”

TIME Israel

Israel Accepts Egypt’s Cease-Fire Plan, but Hamas Vows to Keep Fighting

"This proposal is not acceptable," said a senior Hamas official

+ READ ARTICLE

Despite previously acknowledging some “diplomatic movement,” Hamas rejected Egypt’s cease-fire plan for the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Tuesday — just moments after Israel accepted the proposal.

A statement released by Hamas’ armed wing, al-Qassam Brigades, said the group “totally and completely” rejected the terms of an Egyptian brokered cease fire, adding that without further concessions from Israel, “it was not worth the ink it was written with.” Representatives from Islamic Jihad, which also has been involved in the fighting, also rejected an unconditional ceasefire.

Roughly four hours after Israel’s security cabinet announced that it had accepted the cease fire, Israel said a fresh volley of 35 rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel, causing minor damage.

Cairo’s proposal aimed to stop a weeklong conflict that has seen at least 185 Gazans killed. The truce called for a 48-hour cessation of fire, followed by immediate talks for a longer-term truce and an eventual opening of Gaza’s border crossing, the New York Times reports.

The Associated Press reports that a senior Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Egypt’s plan for a cease-fire in Gaza was “not acceptable.”

Al-Qassam Brigades said on the website that excerpts from the plan published in the media indicated it was “an initiative of kneeling and submission,” reports Reuters.

“Our battle with the enemy continues and will increase in ferocity and intensity,” al-Qassam Brigades added.

[AP]

TIME Egypt

Rockets Kill 8 in Egypt’s Sinai Region

The attack was primarily aimed at the city of al-Arish

Eight people have been killed in a series of rocket attacks targeting security forces in northeast Egypt near the border with Israel.

Reuters reports that the attacks were carried out by Islamist forces in the Sinai peninsula, a region of Egypt that is home to many militant groups.

The Egyptian military has been cracking down on these groups since it ousted the country’s former President Mohamed Morsi just over a year ago.

Morsi had strong ties to fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and his overthrow has prompted backlashes against security targets.

The latest attack in Sinai hit the city of al-Arish. The first rocket apparently missed its goal of a large security compound, according to Reuters, and instead fell on a crowded supermarket, killing seven people and injuring 25.

Another pair of rockets then reached a security target and killed one official, injuring seven other people.

[Reuters]

TIME Israel

Israel Escalates Aerial Offensive on Gaza, Family of 8 Killed

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Israel struck more than 320 Hamas targets overnight, focusing on underground tunnel networks and rocket launching sites

+ READ ARTICLE

(JERUSALEM) — Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault in Gaza Thursday hitting hundreds of Hamas targets, and the Palestinians said a family of eight was killed in a strike that destroyed their home. Israel’s missile defense system once again intercepted rockets fired by militants at the country’s heartland.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Israel struck more than 320 Hamas targets overnight, focusing on underground tunnel networks and rocket launching sites. That brought the total number of targets hit to 750 in three days of the massive offensive. At least 75 Palestinians have been killed.

Lerner said Israel has already mobilized 20,000 reservists for a possible ground operation into Gaza, but for the time being Israel remained focused on maximizing its air campaign. A ground invasion could lead to heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side while putting Israeli ground forces in danger.

Neither side is showing any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012. Israel says that Hamas must cease rocket fire from Gaza for Israel to consider a truce. Militants have fired hundreds of rockets, striking across the length of Israel and disrupting life across the country. No one has been seriously harmed as the “Iron Dome” defense system has intercepted at least 70 of the projectiles destined for major population centers.

“The ground option needs to be the last option and only if it is absolutely necessary. It is a carefully designed plan of action,” Lerner said.

Palestinian medical officials said a strike early Thursday struck a home in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, killing eight members of a family. The Israeli military also said it struck a car in Gaza carrying three Islamic Jihad militants involved in firing rockets. The militant group confirmed that its men were killed in the strike.

At least 20 civilians have been among the 75 deaths reported by the Health Ministry in Gaza, though the exact number is not known.

Israel accuses militants of deliberately endangering civilians by using homes and other civilian buildings for cover. The military has also directly targeted the homes of known militants that it says are used as command centers, though it says it contacts the families first to evacuate.

Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Hamas is firing rockets from “within houses and streets and neighborhoods which are populated with civilians … exposing these civilians to retaliation and to backfire.”

After an overnight lull, militants resumed their barrage toward central and southern Israel. Remnants of a long-range rocket fired from Gaza landed in a gas station in south Tel Aviv after being shot down by Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system.

The longer range of the rockets fired from Gaza has disrupted life across southern and central Israel, where people have been forced to remain close to home, and kindergartens and summer camps have closed.

Besides firing toward Israel’s two largest cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas also launched a rocket that reached the town of Zichron Yaakov, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Gaza.

Even as the Israeli military pummeled Palestinian targets Wednesday, the region saw its first diplomatic efforts to end the heavy fighting.

Egypt, which has mediated before between Israel and the Hamas militant group, said it spoke to all sides about ending the violence. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in touch with Israel to try to lower tensions. And the United Nations chief warned of a “deteriorating situation … which could quickly get beyond anyone’s control.”

As the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 75, neither side showed any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012.

Israel began the offensive Tuesday in response to weeks of rocket launches, and officials said the airstrikes would continue until the firing stops. At least 20 civilians were among the at least 75 deaths reported by the Health Ministry in Gaza. There have been no serious casualties on the Israeli side.

Thousands of Israeli troops massed near the Gaza border, the possibility of a ground invasion grew larger — along with the risk of heavier casualties on both sides.

“Despite the fact it will be hard, complicated and costly, we will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, told Israel Radio. “If you ask my humble opinion, a significant operation like this is approaching.”

The government has authorized the army to activate up to 40,000 reservists, and Israeli TV stations said about a quarter of those forces had been called up, signaling a decision on a ground invasion could still be days away.

In the first indication that cease-fire efforts were underway, the office of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said he held “extensive contacts with all active and concerned parties” to end the fighting.

It said the two sides discussed the “critical conditions and the need to stop all military action, and to stop the slide” toward more violence. It called on Israel to protect Palestinian civilians.

Egypt negotiated a cease-fire that ended the 2012 fighting, but the situation has changed since then. At the time, Egypt was led by the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional movement that includes Hamas. Following a military coup last year, el-Sissi was elected president, and the new government is far more hostile toward Hamas.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he spent Wednesday calling Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, el-Sissi and other regional leaders to push the two sides toward a cease-fire.

“This is one of the most critical tests the region has faced in recent years,” Ban told a news conference. “Gaza is on a knife-edge. The deteriorating situation is leading to a downward spiral which could quickly get beyond anyone’s control.”

In Washington, the State Department said Kerry spoke by phone with Netanyahu and planned to talk to Abbas to urge both sides to de-escalate the crisis.

If the offensive drags on, Netanyahu could find himself under increased pressure to halt it, especially if the civilian death toll mounts.

The airstrikes have demolished dozens of buildings. Among the latest dead were an 80-year-old woman, an 11-year-old girl, a 14-year-old boy and two young children. Israel has accused militants of endangering civilians by using homes and other civilian buildings for cover.

Mohammed al-Nuasrah of the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza described a scene of horror after an airstrike flattened a nearby home.

“Four people from the family died, and we’re sitting looking for the remains of the kids. One is 3 and one is 4 years old,” he said. “These children were just sleeping in their beds. What crime did they commit? Only God can judge you, Israel.”

In a statement broadcast on Al-Jazeera, Hamas’ exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, called on all Palestinians to resist Israel and urged the international community to put pressure on Israel.

“Yes, our enemy is stronger than us, but we are up to the task of facing them, God willing,” he said. “We do not threaten or promise. Our right is to defend our lives.”

The longer range of the rockets fired from Gaza has disrupted life across southern and central Israel, where people have been forced to remain close to home, and kindergartens and summer camps have closed.

Besides firing toward Israel’s two largest cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas also launched a rocket that reached the city of Hadera for the first time. The city, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Gaza, was struck in 2006 by missiles fired by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

“We got it from both directions,” said Maayan From, a 25-year-old Hadera resident. “Our enemies have developed, and it is getting scary.”

In the West Bank, Abbas accused Israel of committing “genocide” due to the mounting civilian death toll and said it raised questions about Israel’s commitment to peace.

Tensions have been rising since the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Israel accused Hamas of being behind the abductions but provided no proof.

Israel then cracked down on the group’s members in the West Bank and arrested hundreds of people. Hamas, which controls Gaza, responded by stepping up rocket fire.

The situation deteriorated last week after the bodies of the three were found, followed a day later by the abduction in Jerusalem of a Palestinian teenager who was found burned to death in what Palestinians believe was a revenge attack. Six Jewish Israelis were arrested in the killing.

Adding to the tension, a 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin of the slain teenager was beaten by Israeli police at a protest. Israel’s Justice Ministry said one of the officers would face criminal charges.

TIME Syria

Report Details Hardships Facing Syria’s Refugee Mothers

Syrian Refugees; Lebanon; North Lebanon; refugees
Sanaa, 26, washes clothes in a borrowed washing machine at a shelter in Saida, Lebanon, on March 4, 2014. Lynsey Addario—UNHCR

Some 145,000 refugee households are headed by women

A new U.N. report grimly details the daily plight of thousands of Syrian refugee mothers who have fled civil war and now toil as their household’s primary breadwinner.

Four-fifths of the 2.8 million Syrians who have fled their war-torn homeland since March 2011 are women and children, says the U.N., leading to some 145,000 refugee households headed solely by women. The survey, based on three months of interviews with 135 women in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, provides a snapshot of the complexities they endure while trying to feed and protect their children, find enough work to make rent and retain any semblance of the lives they enjoyed before war broke out.

They represent women who once managed their homes, even as their husbands usually handled physical and financial security, but who now lead households in unfamiliar and often insecure communities. Lebanon, a nation of 4 million, has taken in more than a million people. At least 600,000 have entered Jordan, with most gravitating toward urban areas, an influx that has crushed certain infrastructure. In addition, some 137,000 have made it to Egypt.

António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said “escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship” and called their treatment “shameful” as the crisis worsens. “They have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety and are being treated as outcasts,” he added, “for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war.”

Typically, their first challenge was simply finding a roof. Many make do with overcrowded or makeshift housing, due to few options and difficulties in securing a stable and sufficient income. Only one-fifth of those interviewed had paid work, and many others said they relied on cash assistance from aid groups or generosity from others in their community.

Paying rent is among their top stressors, as is feeding loved ones. With an average of 5.6 people per household, some mothers said their families ate less as a whole or individuals held back so others could eat more. “Rent is more important than food,” one woman who lived with her seven children in Amman told the U.N. “We don’t remember what meat or fruit tastes like,” echoed another, who kept a home of nine people in Giza, Egypt.

The vast majority of women interviewed relied on food vouchers from the U.N. World Food Programme, but very few complained that their households were going hungry.

Among a number of other issues reported were an inability to afford proper medical care, regular instances of verbal harassment and even offers of free accommodation in exchange for sexual favors. A significant portion said they left their homes much less often than they did in Syria.

The U.N. expects these problems to worsen, as it estimates the total number of Syrian refugees will reach 3.6 million by year’s end, unless aid agencies, donors and host governments renew their commitments of support.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s President el-Sisi Says He Wished Al-Jazeera Journalists Weren’t Tried

Peter Greste
In this file photo, Al-Jazeera's award-winning Australian correspondent Peter Greste, appears in a defendants' cage in a courthouse near Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt. An Egyptian court on Monday, June 23, 2014, convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges after a trial dismissed by rights groups as a politically motivated sham. Hamada Elrasam—AP

It was the first public recognition by any Egyptian official that the case had been damaging to the country's relations with the international community.

(CAIRO) — Egypt’s president acknowledged for the first time that the heavy sentences handed down to three Al-Jazeera journalists had a “very negative” impact on his country’s reputation, saying he wished they were never put on trial.

The comments by Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to editors of Egyptian media outlets were published late Sunday. They were the first public recognition by Egyptian officials that the case had been damaging to the country’s relations with the international community.

The sentencing of the three journalists on June 23, after a five-month trial described as a “sham” by rights groups, caused an international outcry.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences “chilling and draconian,” and urged Egyptian authorities to address international concerns. A day after the sentences and following an outpouring of international condemnation, el-Sissi appeared to be rebuffing the pressure, saying in televised comments that he will not interfere in court rulings.

In his remarks published Sunday, he said the case represented one of the foreign policy challenges facing Egypt, but stopped short of saying whether he will issue a clemency. He seemed to be refuting claims that the case is politically motivated, and a reflection of the tension between Egypt and Qatar, the Gulf state that owns the television network. Qatar was a supporter of the ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood group. After Morsi’s ouster last year, many of the group’s leaders moved to Qatar to avoid an intense government crackdown that landed thousands in jail.

“The verdict issued against a number of journalists had very negative consequences; and we had nothing to do with it,” el-Sissi said, suggesting it was an entirely legal matter. “I wished they were deported immediately after their arrest instead of being put on trial.” His comments were published in the online version of Al-Masry Al-Youm daily.

The three Al-Jazeera journalists were award-winning Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed. They were arrested on Dec. 29 and accused of aiding the Brotherhood by providing it with a media platform and equipment. The Egyptians were also accused of belonging to the Brotherhood, the group the government declared a terrorist organization. Greste and Fahmy each received seven-year sentences, while Mohammed got 10 years. Three other foreign journalists were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.

The sentences can be appealed, a process that can take months. Egypt’s constitution allows the president to issue a clemency, but experts argue the appeals process must be exhausted first.

TIME

Al-Jazeera Journalists’ Families Rail Against Egypt Sentencing

From left: Australian correspondent Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian acting bureau chief of Al-Jazeera Mohamed Fahmy, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed, appear in a defendant's cage in a courtroom in Cairo, on June 23, 2014.
From left: Australian correspondent Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian acting bureau chief of Al-Jazeera Mohamed Fahmy, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed, appear in a defendant's cage in a courtroom in Cairo, on June 23, 2014. Heba Elkholy—AP

The unprecedented trial of journalists on terror charges was tied up in the government's fierce crackdown on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood since last year. Further fueling accusations that the trial was politically motivated is the Egyptian government's deep enmity with the Gulf nation Qatar, which was a close ally of Morsi and which owns the Al-Jazeera network.

(CAIRO) — An Egyptian court on Monday convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges after a trial dismissed by rights groups as a politically motivated sham. The verdict brought a landslide of international condemnation and calls for the newly elected president to intervene.

The ruling stunned the defendants and their families, many of whom had hoped their loved ones would be released because of international pressure on the case. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who a day earlier had discussed the case in a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, denounced the verdict as “chilling and draconian.”

The unprecedented trial of journalists on terror charges was tied up in the government’s fierce crackdown on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood since the ouster last year of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi by el-Sissi, then the army chief. Further fueling accusations that the trial was politically motivated is the Egyptian government’s deep enmity with the Gulf nation Qatar, which was a close ally of Morsi and which owns the Al-Jazeera network.

Prosecutors had accused the three — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed — of promoting or belonging to the Brotherhood and of falsifying their coverage of protests by Morsi’s supporters to hurt Egypt’s security and make it appear the country is sliding into civil war. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

The journalists, who were detained in December, say they are being prosecuted simply for doing their job and are pawns in the political rivalry. During the 5-month trial, prosecutors presented no evidence backing the charges, at times citing random video footage found with the defendants that even the judge dismissed as irrelevant. They depicted typical activity like editing as a sign of falsification.

Mohammed, the team’s producer, had three years added to his 7-year sentence for possessing ammunition, based on a single spent cartridge he picked up at a protest as a souvenir. A Dutch freelance journalist — who did not work for Al-Jazeera but met Fahmy once for tea at the hotel where the team lived and worked — received a 10-year prison sentence. She and two British Al-Jazeera journalists who got the same sentence were tried in absentia.

“They will pay for this, I promise,” Fahmy, who was Al-Jazeera English’s acting Cairo bureau chief, shouted angrily after the sentences were announced as guards pulled him by his already injured shoulder from the courtroom and his mother and fiancee broke into tears.

“Did anybody see any evidence against him? Did he do anything? Anything?” Fahmy’s mother, Wafaa Bassiouni cried.

His brother Adel said the family would appeal. But he had little hope, saying, “This is a screwed up system. This whole government is incompetent.”

Greste silently raised a clenched fist in defiance as mayhem erupted in the courtroom. An award-winning correspondent, Greste had only just arrived in Cairo to start work with Al-Jazeera English when he was arrested. He speaks no Arabic and relied on a translator during the proceedings.

In Australia, Greste’s father said his family considered the court’s decision “a slap in the face and a kick in the groin to Australia as well as all fair-minded people around the world.” Juris Greste told reporters in the family’s hometown of Brisbane on Tuesday that he was in a state of shock and was struggling to think straight.

“I have to say this morning my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are,” Juris Greste told a news conference accompanied by his wife Lois. “You can never prepare yourself for something as painful as this.”

He told reporters, “Journalism is not a crime, or you should all be behind bars— it’s a simple as that. Our son Peter is an award-winning journalist, he is not a criminal.”

Australia’s Foreign Affairs department has called in Egypt’s deputy ambassador to make an official objection to the court ruling. The ambassador is currently in Cairo.

“We’re obviously shocked, dismayed, really bewildered by the decision of the court in Egypt,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters.

Abbott said Australia respects the legitimacy of the Egyptian government, its justice system and the need “to crack down on extremism including the Muslim Brotherhood, but … it is important that there be due process, it is important that decisions be made on a fair and just basis, so we will be talking to the Greste family, we will be talking to the Egyptian government about what we can do to try to ensure that Peter Greste comes home as quickly as possible.”

Abbott said he had a “very constructive discussion” about Greste over the weekend with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

He said that once the Egyptian court system has done its work, “there are options for presidential acts — presidential clemency, presidential pardons and so on — that’s why I’m not in the business of being critical of the government.”

Peter Greste’s brothers, Andrew and Mike Greste, were in Cairo to hear the decision, but have not yet been allowed to visit their brother, Lois Greste said.

The White House called on the government to pardon the defendants or commute their sentences “so they can be released immediately,” spokesman Josh Earnest said. El-Sissi has the power to do so. Legal experts say that would come only after appeals are finished, though the constitution does not specify that requirement. The appeals process could take months, especially since courts soon start a summer break. The defendants would remain in prison during an appeal unless the win a separate “suspension of verdict” ruling.

There were 17 co-defendants in the case — seven journalists, and the rest students arrested separately and accused of giving footage to the journalists. Four were sentenced to seven years each, two were acquitted, and the rest — tried in absentia — received 10-year sentences.

When the sentences were pronounced, the students — who unlike the journalists have not denied their support for the Brotherhood — chanted an anthem by Sayed Qutb, a Brotherhood ideologue executed in the 1950s, against the “army of darkness” and shouted, “God is great.”

The verdict deepened concerns over rights and civil liberties amid the anti-Islamist crackdown, in which security forces have killed hundreds and arrested thousands. In recent weeks, courts sentenced hundreds to death in mass trials with little evidence and little chance given for the defense.

The crackdown has expanded to dissent by non-Islamists as well, with tough prison sentences against activists convicted under a controversial law issued last year banning protests without prior police permit.

The White House said the rulings were the latest in a series of prosecutions “that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “appalled” and his office summoned Egypt’s ambassador to protest the verdicts.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “strongly rejects any comment by any foreign party shedding doubt on the independence of Egyptian judiciary and its fair rulings.”

The Egyptian prosecutors’ office said the sentences were a “deterrent.”

In part, the trial and harsh sentences show the vehemence of Egypt’s enmity with Qatar and Al-Jazeera. Egyptian authorities accuse the station of being biased toward Morsi and acting as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood, a claim the network denies. The network’s Arabic-language Egypt channel in particular was widely viewed as giving favorable coverage for the pro-Morsi camp, though the English channel where the sentenced journalists worked was seen as more objective.

Further deepening dismay over the result was the thinness of the evidence.

Amnesty International’s observer at the trial, Philip Luther, said the prosecution “failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence” backing the charges. In a statement, he called the sentences “a travesty of justice.”

Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed were arrested in December in a raid on the Cairo hotel room they were using as an office. Police confiscated their equipment, computers and other items.

During the trial, prosecutors contended they would present fabricated footage aired by the defendants. They presented some footage showing clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and police, arguing it undermined state authority but without any indication it was faked. They also cited as evidence leaflets that the three had picked up at the protests.

Mostly, they presented video clips also found on the three that had nothing to do with the case — including a report on a veterinary hospital in Cairo, another on Christian life in Egypt and old footage of Greste from previous assignments elsewhere in Africa, including video of animals.

Shaimaa Aboul-kheir, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the verdict violates provisions in the constitution banning the imprisonment of journalists in connection with their work and shows “Egypt is one of the dangerous and more risky countries” of international and local journalists.

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