June 25, 2014
It’s easy and entirely justifiable to let loose an outraged rant at the prison sentences handed down in Egypt to three Al Jazeera journalists, including Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, after a piece of judicial theatre so farcical it denigrates the name of kangaroo courts.
But whether Fahmy, the acting bureau chief in Egypt for the Al Jazeera television network, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed deserve more consideration than the thousands of other people caught up in the Middle East power struggle is a more difficult question.
Like all journalists operation in conflict zones, they took measured risks in order to do their jobs. That doesn’t mean they are the authors of their own fate, but it does mean they knew what they were getting into, or should have done.
The three were arrested on December 29 last year at Cairo’s Marriott hotel where they had set up a temporary office while they reported on protests against the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood administration of President Mohammed Morsi the previous July. After the coup, the military declared the brotherhood a terrorist group. The three Al Jazeera men were accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, broadcasting “false news,” and undermining Egypt’s national security by suggesting the country was on the brink of civil war.
No evidence of any substance was produced at the trial, which ended with the sentences on Monday. It was evident from the start that the journalists are collateral damage in a broader regional power struggle and their real crime is working for Al Jazeera, whose proprietor and financial backer is the House of Thani, the ruling family of the fabulously wealthy Gulf State of Qatar.
The Thanis are avid supporters of rebellious Islamic fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood, who want to establish regimes governed by puritanical religious law, in their struggles against more secular established administrations. The Thanis have provided safe havens in Qatar for the senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood who managed to escape last July’s coup in Egypt, and they have given at least $100 million to buy arms for the al-Qaida-linked rebels in Syria. One of those groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has not only taken control of large areas of Syria, it is now on a mission of conquest in neighbouring Iraq and is circling in on the capital, Baghdad.
The English language channel of Al Jazeera is well staffed by highly professional journalists, many of them familiar faces lured from television networks like CNN and the BBC World Service. But its Arabic service is another matter. Al Jazeera was Osama bin Laden’s favourite outlet for his long and tedious video proclamations. Israelis and secularist Arabs will tell you Al Jazeera’s coverage in Arabic of regional events is heavily warped in favour of the most violent and religiously extreme players.
Working for an organization widely seen as not just an observer and recorder of events, but a prominent player in them, was not the only factor that undoubtedly figured in the risk assessment of the three journalists.
For Fahmy there is also the question of his nationality. He has dual Egyptian and Canadian citizenship. I contacted Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs yesterday to ask which passport Fahmy used to enter Egypt, but was told that privacy laws prevented the department from saying.
Fahmy’s brother has said members of the family have been travelling back and forth to Egypt for decades on their Canadian passports. However, it is likely that in order to work in Egypt without having to go through the expense, formalities and complications of getting the necessary permits, Fahmy used his Egyptian passport and citizenship.
But even if he did use his Canadian documents for entry and work it might not protect him. Many countries don’t acknowledge dual citizenship and figure they have the right to treat their own nationals any way they wish. Canadian officials have warned Fahmy’s family that Mohammed’s dual citizenship complicates the situation and limits the forcefulness with which Ottawa can intervene. That said, Canadian officials say they have been allowed full consular access to Fahmy by the military regime.
That’s not always the case. China, for example, routinely refuses to give foreign consular officials access to imprisoned dual nationals.
At any one time there are about a dozen Canadian Chinese in prison in China. They have usually been detained after falling out with joint venture partners. The partners bribe officials to, in essence, hold the Canadians hostage until a settlement is reached.
Despite persistent warnings from the Department of Foreign Affairs about the risks, Chinese Canadians continue to use Chinese nationality documents rather than their Canadian passports when doing business in China. Many have weighed the risks, figure that demonstrating ethnic solidarity by using their Chinese documents lubricates business deals, and figure they can overcome any problems that occur. But when things go badly wrong, they can wind up totally friendless.
In Fahmy’s case, after a tentative start, it is beginning to sound as though Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have grasped that the Canadian media, if no one else, is not going to let this issue go. Ottawa will be pressing for a presidential pardon, or some other justification for Fahmy’s early release from his seven-year prison sentence.
I know some of the Canadian diplomats in Cairo and am certain they are and will be pursuing Fahmy’s case with vigour. However, there have been cases where Canadian diplomats’ enthusiasm appears to have been influenced by their reaction to the victim.
I remember being approached by a junior Canadian diplomat when I was the Southam News Africa correspondent, based in Zimbabwe. A Canadian who worked for the local telephone company had been in Harare’s notorious Central Prison for many months without being charged. He was suspected by President Robert Mugabe’s regime of arranging telephone taps on behalf of the apartheid government in South Africa, but no evidence had been produced and the Canadian was languishing in the most appalling conditions without any end in sight.
The young diplomat went to see the prisoner regularly and kept in touch with his family. But the junior officer had found it impossible to get senior Canadian diplomats, who were excessively close to the Mugabe administration, to take the case seriously. The allegations of links to the apartheid regime undoubtedly influenced this attitude.
But I figured a Canadian is a Canadian and deserving of diplomatic protection, whatever one thinks of his or her affiliations.
With the help of the junior diplomat, I arranged to get into the prison masquerading as a member of the prisoner’s family, and wrote a story. Ottawa recoiled at the adverse publicity and jumped in. He was released and shipped home within a few weeks.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
Jonathan Manthorpe column on Qatar June 4, 2014, Soccer bribery is the least of Qatar’s sins: From being the poster boy for a modernizing Middle East, the filthy rich Gulf state of Qatar has become a menace.
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