January 31, 2014

How the Harper government fails Canadian journalist in Egyptian jail

On December 29, 2013, three journalists working for Al Jazeera English channel in Egypt – the Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, Peter Greste, a renowned Australian journalist, and the Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed – were arrested in their rooms of the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, their equipment was confiscated, and they were taken to the high security prison Tora, were high-profile leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared by the Egyptian government to be 'terrorists', are currently held.

For weeks no charges were laid against these journalists and Egypt refused to give any legal explanation. The Cairo Bureau Chief Fahmy was reportedly treated the worst of the three detained. While all had to suffer under solitary confinement, Fahmy got a 'special' treatment by not being allowed medical treatment for a broken shoulder and having to sleep on the cold cement floor in a cockroach-infested cell with no daylight.

On the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, January 25, 2014, almost a month after the arrest, the treatment got even worse: the prison guards took away his watch, his jacket and the only blanket he had for sleeping on the floor. Medical treatment to his broken shoulder, four weeks into the injury, was further denied. For over 20 hours he was denied food and to go to the bathroom. The guards explained this treatment as a 'punishment' for a bomb attack the day before in Cairo – to which the journalist Fahmy in his solitary confinement plainly and clearly could not have had any connection.

On January 29, the Public Prosecutor of Egypt suddenly came up with charges against 20 Al Jazeera journalists, amongst them the three detained at Tora. Widely broadcasted on Egyptian State TV under the banner "Fight against terrorism" the prosecution accused the journalists to have supported a terrorist group (aka the Muslim Brotherhood) by inventing false news about the situation in Egypt, thus shaming Egypt in the world and 'harming national security'. Fahmy was in addition accused of being a member of the Brotherhood (which he is not) and charged to be a 'terrorist'.

International demands to set them free

Accusing and charging a Canadian-Egyptian journalist to be a terrorist just for interviewing members of a political group or reporting on clashes between the state security and this group was a harsh attack on the freedom of media in Egypt and seen by many as a deliberate warning sign to other foreign journalists to not report the truth about the unrest situation in the country.

On January 13, more than 40 editors and correspondents from international media organisations signed an open letter to the Egyptian government demanding the release of the journalists. Many international NGOs like amnesty international, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists or Reporters Without Borders protested against the treatment of the Al Jazeera journalists and especially those detained under the extreme conditions in Tora and demanded for the charges to be dropped immediately and the journalists to be freed. Amnesty international adopted Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed as 'prisoners of conscience', imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.

As Fahmy was treated the worst in prison, punished for things he clearly could not have any doing in and kept without medical treatment for a broken shoulder for four weeks – violating a prisoner like this is breaching international and Egyptian laws and called torture – it was expected that the Canadian government would issue some statement, expressing at least concern over the abhorrent treatment of a Canadian citizen and journalist. Yet, the only thing that came out of Ottawa (and only on demand) was a diplomatic thin-lipped wording saying that 'consular services' were provided and that officials had 'raised this case with senior Egyptian officials'. Something that the family of detained Fahmy could not confirm for weeks, as Fahmy repeatedly was dragged to interrogations without any representative of the Canadian embassy being present.

Contacting the Harper Government

Shortly after the prosecutor had finally let the cat out of the bag that the journalists were considered to be supporters or, in the case of Fahmy, even members of a terrorist group, I wanted to know from the Harper government in Canada their position expressively on the plight of their Canadian citizen Fahmy. The only statement by Canada issued before was empty of any reliable acknowledgement of his situation or the willingness to speak out in his favour.

I contacted the Canadian Departement of Foreign Affairs and spoke to Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, who is the spokesperson for Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, regarding 'Middle East' and 'Human Rights and Democracy'.

When I asked about the position of the Canadian government on the fact that a Canadian citizen and journalist had now been kept in a dark cell without treatment for a broken shoulder for four weeks, Baird's spokesperson read to me the earlier published statement:
“Consular services are being provided to the Canadian citizen who has been arrested in Egypt.
Officials are in regular communication with and providing assistance to those family members that the subject has provided authorization to speak with.
Canadian officials have raised this case with senior Egyptian officials and local authorities continue to be engaged."

M:    Well, that I know already, it is not new. But that does not say anything.

V:    What I have provided is really the extent of what we have to say on this issue.

M:    Today things have escalated, as you are aware, due to the fact that charges are now being laid against all those who have been implicated in this, including the Canadian. There must be more from the Canadian government with regard to a political stance on this, because this is an attack on press freedom which in Canada is actually very protected?

V:    Yes, well Mr. Moremi, as I said, that is the extent of what I have to provide at this stage. But don't hesitate to be in touch with us tomorrow and in the coming days and hopefully we have more to say on this, but today that is the extent of the statement I can provide.

M:    But that would be a bit odd to tell the world that that is all Canada has to say if a Canadian citizen and journalist is detained under such circumstances. I would just like to point out that US Senator Cain on the weekend has spoken up and demanded from Egypt to free these journalists, and there is not even an American citizen or journalist involved. And the world is still waiting on something clear from Canada, because as you well know your Canadian citizen has now been in jail exactly for a whole month. So I would not be quite sure, what would be different tomorrow?

V:    Ok, well I'm not going to comment on what other countries have said. But I have given you the extent of the Canadian statement on this issue at this stage and I'll make sure to be in touch and don't hesitate to be in touch with us as well.

M:    Mr. Villeneuve, the colleague who is currently incarcerated in Cairo is incarcerated under conditions that both Canada and other countries, even under the laws of Egypt, are clearly seeing as a violation of human rights. He is not getting medical treatment and your talking to officials is not helping him. He has a broken shoulder, he has not been attended to for four weeks. It was supposed to be attended to on Sunday. Again it has not. The only blanket he has has been taken away from him. If you research what a broken shoulder means if it's not tended to that should trouble the Canadian government immensely. So this surely can't be the only thing Canada has to say to this? You spoke up for John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, why the silence on Mohamed Fahmy?

V:    Again - consular services are being provided and the statement is all we have to say at this stage.

M:    Does that mean that the Canadian government is not willing to say anything with regard to the fact that a Canadian citizen has now for four weeks been in jail with a broken shoulder and without any medical treatment?

V:    I gave you my opinion on this ...

M:    No, I'm asking you. You're not even mentioning the shoulder that is broken, I mean, just imagine you would be in jail with a broken shoulder for a whole month and your government would not even say something to that. Why is that so? The world does not understand it. No one understands why Canada on this is the only country that does not say anything. Why don't you at least demand that he is treated like a prisoner should be treated according to international treaties that are also valid for Canada?

V:    I cannot comment on personal and private information, as is the case, as you can appreciate ...

M:    No, I can't appreciate it because this is not a 'private' information if a Canadian citizen for a whole month now has been in an Egyptian jail with a broken shoulder and no medical treatment, that is not a private information. This is a human rights violation of a Canadian citizen and the world is asking why Canada's government is not saying anything on this?
Are you demanding from the Egyptian government to at least give him the rights that a prisoner in Canada and everywhere else in the civilised world has? Is this a demand the Canadian government makes or not?

V:    Ok – "Canadian officials have raised this case with senior Egyptian officials and will continue to be engaged with local authorities" – and that's all I have to say on this at this stage.

M:    But you are aware that even if you have spoken to officials this has not bettered his situation but it has made it worse after a whole month? I mean, how long does the Canadian government think a person can survive with a broken shoulder in solitary confinement lying on a floor with not even a blanket?

V:    I really ... I really have provided all I have to say on this ... And I'll make sure we'll be in touch with you when we have more to say, thank you ...

M:    So that means the Canadian government is not saying anything on the lack of medical treatment of a Canadian journalist in an Egyptian jail, is this correct?

V:    I will send you the Canadian statement ...

M:    Yes, the Canadian statement I know. You're not saying anything about this in the statement. I'm asking you, is the Canadian government not saying anything with regard to the fact that a Canadian journalist is subjected to something that is called 'human rights violation'?

V:    (hesitates) Well ... I'm the spokesperson for this issue and I'm providing you with our statement. Thank you very much.

M:    Well, you know I'm not satisfied. – And you know I can only then report that the Canadian government ignores the fact that a Canadian journalist is lying in a jail cell with a broken shoulder. – And there is nothing you say to this?

V:     Sir ... I have ... I have given you the extent of what I have to say at this stage, but I'll be in touch, ok ...

M:    We are both professionals. I have been working in this profession for 35 years. You are trying to ward me off. But this man has been under these conditions for a whole month now. When is the Canadian government, that was able to say something on John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, willing to say something against the human rights violations of a Canadian journalist? This is a very simple question. And you can only answer that with saying the Canadian government does not care and will not say anything to that or you can give me any reaction of the Canadian government.

V:    Ok, a) I didn't say that ...

M:    No, you didn't. But then, what do you say?

V:    Well, I provided you with our statement, Sir.

M:    But in your statement it doesn't say anything about the fact that this man has now been subjected to human rights violations for four weeks! The man has a broken shoulder! Surely the Canadian government is absolutely aware of the fact that a broken shoulder needs medical treatment? No prisoner in this world – and this is Canadian law – may be subjected to this treatment not getting medical treatment for four weeks! So surely, if this happens to a Canadian citizen, the Canadian government must have something to say to this other than "we're not saying anything"?

V:    (pause) I really ... I really have nothing further to add ... So, I'm gonna hang up now. And I'm going to send you the statement by email. And ... I'm sorry it is not satisfying you. I can appreciate why ... But ... that's the extent of what I have to say at this stage. Thank you.

M:    Seeing the fact that this has now been going on for four weeks, is there any idea on your part that the Canadian government will come up with something more than just this statement in the future?

V:    (long pause) I don't have any such information on this at this stage. But if, why and when we do I will make sure we'll be in touch, ok? Thank you very much ...

M:    And you can also not explain why you said something on John Greyson and Tarek Loubani? John Baird said something there.

V:    Ah ... I provided you with our statement on this, Sir, and now I'm gonna hang up, ok? Thank you very much ... (waits) ... Good day ...

(Hangs up.)

Australia's Foreign Minister acts

At the same time that I was having this rather amazing conversation with the spokesperson of the Canadian Foreign Minister, as I learned later when contacting Canberra, in far away Australia the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, was alarmed at learning of the charges now made public.

She had summoned the Egyptian Ambassador into the Foreign Office on January 16 and asked that a meeting would be arranged between the Australian Ambassador in Cairo and the Public Prosecutor to discuss the fate of Australian journalist Peter Greste. This was promised, but nothing had happened. When on January 29 instead the Public Prosecutor announced charges against Greste for supporting a terrorist group, Australian Minister Julie Bishop picked up the phone and called her Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting System she explained, that this had been a "very candid" discussion with Fahmy and that she had raised her serious concerns on this matter and on the abhorrent prison conditions Greste was subjected too. Apparently the Egyptian Foreign Minister was willing to accept her protest and assured her to do anything in his power to be of help.

A day later, last night, a meeting between the Australian Ambassador in Cairo and the Egyptian Public Prosecutor finally did indeed come about and the Australian government for the first time was officially informed on the exact charges laid against their citizen Greste. The charges, as Bishop points out, are now under legal review by the Australian government, and she made it very clear, that she will keep engaging for Peter Greste to try to ensure he receives both due process and from now on humane prison conditions. 

The U.S. State Department is "alarmed"

Shortly after my conversation with Canada's Foreign Ministry spokesperson and Australia's Foreign Minister Bishop's conversation with her Egyptian counterpart, the U.S. State Department's spokesperson Jen Psaki commented in unusually strong words on the attacks against the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt. Even though no American journalist was implicated in the case, the Obama administration found it important enough to publicly criticise what was happening to press freedom under the military rulers of Egypt and said:
"The government’s targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms."

Psaki added that the U.S. was
"alarmed by reports today of additional journalists facing charges, including the Al Jazeera journalists. Any journalist, regardless of affiliation, must not be targets of violence, intimidation, or politicized legal action. They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in Egypt. We remind the Egyptian Government publicly and privately that freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy and we urge the interim government to implement its commitment to this freedom. We strongly urge the government to reconsider detaining and trying these journalists, and reiterate that they must be afforded all accordance of the due process under the rule of law."

Another attempt in Canada

The next day, January 30, I found it vital to confront the Canadian Foreign Ministry with this very outspoken and clear critical statement of the U.S. government regarding the attacks against journalists in Egypt.

When the sun was up in Ottawa yesterday, mid-noon Cairo time, I contacted the spokesperson of Minister Baird once more, send him the clear worded statement of the U.S. State Department, expressing "alarm", and asked:
"How alarmed is the Canadian government in the light that a Canadian journalist is among those wrongly targeted?"

It took a while for a response. Late in the afternoon Villeneuve in a friendly but slim-lined reply once more send me the known statement regarding consular services and this time added the line:
"To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further details cannot be released at this time."

This was both unsatisfactory as nonsensical, as I pointed out in my return mail:
"In how far does the protest of a country (Canada) over an attack on press freedom (compare US State Dept. statement) have anything to do with "privacy of the individual concerned"?

The question was if Canada is as "alarmed" on the "targeting of journalists" in Egypt and considers this too a "disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms"?

This has nothing to do with privacy issues.

Is there a political position of the Canadian government on this or not?"

The sun had already set over Tora prison in Cairo last night when the reply from Baird's spokesperson finally arrived. It read:
"Hi Jon,

I don't have anything to add to what I provided you with.

Thank you.


UK Foreign Secretary raised his concerns

In the meantime, the British Foreign Office in London today has supplied me with a statement saying that they are aware of the situation that two British journalists have also been charged with supporting terrorism and they are seeking further information from the Egyptian authorities. The statement went on to say:
“We were concerned by the closure of political space for opposition groups in the run-up to the referendum and the arrest and sentencing of human rights activists. We are also concerned by continuing restrictions on freedom of expression and the press. The Foreign Secretary raised these concerns in a conversation with Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmy on 7 January.”

Apparently only Australia, the UK and the U.S. seem to find fault with the attack on press freedom and journalists in Egypt. While all three governments voiced their concern both in public expression and direct contact with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmy – in Canada, whose citizen and journalist Mohamed Fahmy has languished under inhumane and torturous conditions for more than four weeks now in a dark cell with being refused medical treatment for his broken shoulder, Minister for Foreign Affairs, John Baird, still does not seem to see any reason to pick up a phone.

It is at this point that I know that I could never be tempted to become a Canadian citizen.

For only a country in need, is a country indeed.


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has issued a statement today saying the UNOHCHR is
"extremely concerned about the increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks on media in Egypt."

Pointing to a deterioration in the last months the statement continues:
"Wednesday’s announcement that the Egyptian Prosecutor-General intends to bring to trial 16 local and 4 foreign journalists alleged to have worked for the international broadcaster Al Jazeera, on vague charges including “aiding a terrorist group” and “harming the national interest”, is of great concern. ... There are also reports of journalists in detention being subjected to ill-treatment or being held in conditions that are not in line with international human rights standards. 

We urge the Egyptian authorities to promptly release all journalists imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities in exercise of their fundamental human rights. It is the State’s obligation to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is respected, and that journalists are able to report on diverse views and issues surrounding the current situation in Egypt."

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