National News

Australia PM tells Egypt reporter is innocent

FILE - In this May 3, 2014 file photo, Al-Jazeera
FILE - In this May 3, 2014 file photo, Al-Jazeera's award-winning Australian correspondent Peter Greste appears in a defendants' cage in the Police Academy courthouse along with several other defendants during a trial on terror charges in Cairo, Egypt. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday, June 23 that he told Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi that the jailed Australian journalist is innocent of charges that he supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. (AP Photo/Hamada Elrasam, File)
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By Rod McGuirk, The Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday that he told Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi that a jailed Australian journalist is innocent of charges that he supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Australian Peter Greste is one of three Al-Jazeera journalists — including Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy — who were convicted in a Cairo court Monday and sentenced to seven years in prison on charges they supported the Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organization.

They were arrested in December as part of a sweeping crackdown on Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi after the military overthrew him last year.

There was no immediate reaction from Ottawa, but Canadian Ambassador David Drake, who attended the trial Monday, said there were many questions over the verdict.

"We are very disappointed," he said. "We are digesting this... We have to put our faith in the judicial system. We don't understand this particular verdict."

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has previously said he has discussed Fahmy's case with his Egyptian counterpart, but Canadian officials have warned Fahmy's family that the journalist's dual citizenship has placed limits on how much they can do.

Ahead of Monday's verdict, Abbott, a former journalist, said he raised Greste's case in a conversation with the newly appointed Egyptian leader over the weekend.

"I did make the point that as an Australian journalist, Peter Greste would not have been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, he would have simply been reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood," Abbott told reporters.

"The point I made was that in the long run, a free and vigorous media are good for democracy, good for security, (and) good for stability," he said.

"I did my best to put it to the president that as an Australian journalist, Peter Greste would not have been taking sides. He would have simply been reporting on the events that he saw before him. He certainly would have had no interest in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood," Abbott said.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a sharp rebuke of the verdict, saying Australia would approach Egypt's government to see if an intervention was possible.

"The Australian government is shocked at the verdict in the Peter Greste case," Bishop told reporters. "We are deeply dismayed by the fact that a sentence has been imposed and we are appalled by the severity of it. ... The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case."

Greste, Fahmy and their Egyptian colleague, Abdullah Elshamy, had pleaded not guilty to terrorism-related charges that allege they provided a platform for the Brotherhood and Morsi.

The case has caused an outcry among journalists and rights groups, who say the prosecution of the journalists was politicized and undermines freedom of expression in Egypt.

— With files from The Canadian Press.

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