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What Legal Processes are Available to the Journalists Imprisoned in Egypt?

The following is a guest post by George Sadek, a senior legal research analyst at the Law Library of Congress.  George has previously written various posts related to Egyptian law for In Custodia Legis, including about the constitutional developments in the country in the past couple of years.

GavelAs has been widely reported and discussed in the news media, in December 2013 the Egyptian authorities arrested and detained three journalists working with the Al Jazeera news network.  Later, charges were also brought against a number of other Al Jazeera journalists who were outside of the country.  The General Prosecutor charged the journalists with joining the Muslim Brotherhood, which is currently considered  a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government, and with disseminating false information abroad that damaged Egyptian national interests.

After six months of detention and five months of court proceedings, in June 2014 the Cairo Court of Appeal found the three journalists guilty under articles 80(d) and 86 (bis) of the Egyptian Penal Code.  Article 80(d) provides that any individual who deliberately disseminates false news abroad, information, or rumors related to the state’s internal situation, which will cause the country’s financial credibility to be weakened or to harm the dignity and prestige of the Egyptian state, are criminally punishable.  Upon conviction, a person can be subject to a term of imprisonment between six months and five years, a fine of between 100 and 500 Egyptian pounds, or both penalties.  Likewise, Article 86 (bis) imposes a term of imprisonment that does not exceed five years on individuals found guilty of joining any association, corporation, organization, group, or brand with a goal of interrupting the constitution or laws, preventing public authorities from exercising their work, encroaching on the personal freedom of citizens or other freedoms granted by the constitution, or impairing national unity or social peace.

The criminal court sentenced each of the three journalists to a total of seven years of imprisonment on these two charges.  It sentenced one of them to three additional years of imprisonment and a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds as he was also found guilty of the crime of possession of ammunition.  The court also tried eleven other journalists in absentia, including three foreign journalists, sentencing all of them to ten years of imprisonment.

I have been following the cases with interest, including discussions about whether the journalists could be released following further proceedings.  It appears that two legal processes could be used by the defense attorneys to seek the release of the journalists: 1) petitioning the Egyptian President for pardons; and 2) submitting a petition for appeal to the Court of Cassation (the highest judicial body in the Egyptian court hierarchy).  I checked the relevant laws and other sources to learn more about these processes.

With respect to the issuance of a presidential decree pardoning the convicted journalists, article 155 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 grants the President of the Republic the right to issue a pardon or reduce a sentence.  This practice is not unheard of in the Egyptian legal system.  For example, in October 2008, former President Hosni Mubarak exercised this constitutional right when he pardoned a journalist, Ibrahim Issa, after the latter was convicted by the Cairo Court of Appeal with reporting and disseminating false information related to the president’s health.  Additionally, I found that in 2012, former president Mohamed Morsi practiced the same constitutional right when he pardoned an array of individuals detained and tried in incidents related to protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

The second legal procedure that could apparently be used to seek the release of the journalists is to submit a petition to the Court of Cassation.  Under article 446 of the Egyptian Code of Criminal Procedure, the Court of Cassation has the authority to scrutinize the decisions of the criminal and civil chambers of the Court of Appeal.  If the Court of Cassation finds that there was a breach of law during the trial process or in the interpretation of the Criminal Code by the judges, it will void the previous sentence issued by the Cairo Court of Appeal.  The Court of Cassation will also return the case to be adjudicated by different judges.  The prosecution has the ability to appeal the decision of, and sentences imposed by, the Court of Appeal as well.

I am sure we will hear more about the legal processes involving the journalists soon.  Recently, it was reported that the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had said that he wished the three journalists had been deported rather than put on trial.  However, he previously stated that he would not interfere in the verdicts issued by the court.

The Law Library of Congress holds the official gazette of Egypt, which contains the Egyptian Penal Code and the law of criminal procedure.  In addition, we have a variety of reference books that analyze Egypt’s criminal law and its historical development, such as Studies in the Egyptian Legal System: Courts & Crimes (1979) (English); Commentary on the Egyptian Criminal Law (1914); Jarāʼim al-ghishsh wa-al-tadlīs (Crimes of Fraud under the Penal Code) (1992) (Arabic)  and the Egyptian Penal Code (1999) (Arabic).  If you have a broader interest in Egyptian law, we also have a research guide and other information on our website and can provide reference assistance to help guide your research.

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