The Guardian view on the al-Jazeera convictions: a symptom of something fundamentally wrong: Editorial
ddressing the court that was to condemn him to years in jail, the Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky summed up the essence of what in the old Soviet days was called “telephone justice” when he said in 2010: “Those who clash with the system have no rights whatsoever. Even though rights are enshrined in law they are not defended in court, because the courts are either afraid of the system or form a part of it.”
The distortion that turns the rule of law into a rule that makes a travesty of the law and courts into instruments of retaliation and repression is an all too common feature of political systems round the world. But the Egypt of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is up there in orbit with the very worst offenders. Time and again under his presidency Egyptian courts have passed sentences both cruel and bizarre, based on evidence so inane as to beggar belief – evidence that in other countries would have led not only to the abandonment of the proceedings but to the dismissal or resignation of those who had put it forward. Such verdicts may spring in part from the nature of a judiciary recruited from social classes deeply opposed to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and not much less opposed to those that animate Egypt’s liberal intellectuals. But they also spring from the pernicious notion that it is the job of the courts to punish and suppress those whom the state sees as its enemies.
Did anybody at the weekend actually pick up the telephone to instruct the judge who sentenced three al-Jazeera journalists to prison for three years? We don’t know, but the record suggests much fiddling with the proceedings. It may well be that President Sisi regretted the even more farcical first trial of the journalists and its impact on foreign opinion. He probably wanted to wind down the affair during the appeal, which dismissed much of the earlier evidence, by bringing in a lesser verdict.
It may well be that he expects now to escape further international consequences by granting presidential pardons to the three. But such calibration in a sense makes matters worse. Justice is not served by verdicts that fly in the face of the evidence, or are reached in the absence of evidence. But nor is it served when the judicial process is bent in order to placate your allies
In both instances the conclusion must be that the last thing that matters to those concerned is the truth. The charges were baseless and this verdict, although a lesser one than the first, is still a disgrace. To add insult to injury the British ambassador was summoned by the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs and told that the comments he made on the verdict amounted to “unacceptable interference”.
Everybody will hope that the two journalists now back in custody will be released and that the charges against Peter Greste, who was deported to his home country earlier this year, will be dropped. But the question of what happens to those unjustly accused in Egypt who do not have foreign friends or passports is the important issue. Those in detention now include at least 23 other journalists, many young people held for demonstrating, three belly dancers accused of “inciting debauchery”, and, of course, thousands held for alleged membership of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Will such people continue to be pursued and mistreated by President Sisi’s legal minions? And if those minions are overzealous will he, or can he, restrain them? He may or may not be responsible in a direct way for a particular miscarriage of justice. But in the end he is responsible for a
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