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Egypt Summons British Ambassador After His Critique of Ruling Against Journalists

CAIRO — The Egyptian foreign ministry said Sunday that it had summoned the British ambassador to object to his comments on a recent court ruling to jail two journalists, escalating the government’s defense of its crackdown on dissent.

The two journalists, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, have attracted special attention because, unlike most journalists in Egypt’s jails, both have had long careers at respected international news organizations. Mr. Fahmy is a Canadian who recently renounced his Egyptian citizenship and Mr. Mohamed is Egyptian.

A third journalist convicted with them, Peter Greste, an Australian, was deported this year. Several other citizens of Western countries, including two from Britain, were convicted in absentia in the same case. All face probable arrest if they return to Egypt.

The case centers on allegations that Mr. Fahmy, Mr. Mohamed and Mr. Greste, who worked together for the English-language division of Al Jazeera, conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood to broadcast false news in order to destabilize Egypt. But the prosecutors have not presented any evidence of either collaboration with the Brotherhood or erroneous broadcasts.

Mr. Fahmy, Mr. Mohamed and Mr. Greste were initially jailed at the end of 2013, a few months after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now president, led a military takeover. In January, 2015, an appeals court ordered a retrial. Mr. Greste was deported at the beginning of February, and Mr. Fahmy gave up his Egyptian citizenship in the expectation that he, too, would be sent home. Instead, he and Mr. Mohamed were released on bail pending a retrial.

On Saturday each was re-sentenced to at least three years in prison, and both are behind bars again.

Several Western governments — including the United States, Canada and Britain — issued statements in English that condemned the ruling, saying it would undermine stability in Egypt by damaging public confidence in the rule of law and the freedom of expression.

The British ambassador, John Casson, attended the court session on Saturday and said much the same thing, that the verdict would “undermine confidence in the basis of Egypt’s stability.” Mr. Casson, however, made his comments in fluent Arabic, in front of Egyptian television news cameras.

The Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday that it had summoned Mr. Casson “to express its strong objection” to his comments, which the ministry called “unacceptable intervention in Egyptian judicial rulings.”

“Egypt does not need lessons from anyone,” the statement added.

In a separate, more general statement, the Egyptian foreign ministry said its critics “deliberately confused issues related to the freedom of the press, which are guaranteed under Egypt’s Constitution, with unrelated violations of the law.”

In his ruling Saturday, Judge Hassan Farid said that Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohamed did not qualify for legal protection as journalists because they had not received authorization by the Egyptian government. The government has shut down Egyptian operations of their parent network, Al Jazeera, which was sharply critical of the military takeover and sympathetic to the ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement after the ruling that at least 22 journalists were behind bars on August 12, before the addition of Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohamed. Most, including Mr. Fahmy, are accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, although Mr. Fahmy himself has been openly critical of the group.

“How can the judge say they are not journalists?” Mr. Mohamed’s wife, Jehan Rashed, said in an interview Sunday, noting that her husband was registered for years as a journalist for a major Japanese news organization.

Mr. Mohamed left the house on Saturday morning so confident of his acquittal or release that he was making plans with their three children — all under five, the youngest born while Mr. Mohamed was in prison — for later that day, Ms. Rashed said. “The kids are stunned, they keep asking for him.”

Separately, the election authorities announced a schedule for parliamentary elections expected to take place in two stages this fall, in mid-October and mid-November.

Egypt’s constitutional court dissolved its last elected Parliament more than three years ago, in June 2012, around the time of the election of Mr. Morsi. The court cited technical flaws in the distribution of seats among individuals and parties, and it continued to block plans to elect a new Parliament while Mr. Morsi was in office.

At Mr. Morsi’s ouster a year later, Mr. Sisi, then a general, promised that the election of a new Parliament would be the first step in a “road map” back to democracy. But the government Mr. Sisi put in place decided to schedule his pro forma election as president before the formation of a new legislature, and he has continued to rule as sole lawmaker as well as chief executive.

Parliamentary elections were initially scheduled for March and April of this year, but another court decision invalidated those plans as well.

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(via NY Times)