ARUN RATH, HOST:
A dramatic day in Cairo, where three Al Jazeera English journalists and several student activists were sentenced to up to three years and six months in prison. The controversial case has been dragging on for nearly two years, triggering international outrage and highlighting the sweeping crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt since a military coup there in 2013. NPR's Leila Fadel has this report from Cairo.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This morning, Baher Mohamed waited outside the courtroom hoping that he would be exonerated in a retrial for the journalists who had already spent over a year in prison before being released on bail last year. He said goodbye to his three young children just in case.
BAHER MOHAMED: I just gave them some kisses - goodbye kisses in the morning today - and they were sleeping. And I really hope I'll be back today.
FADEL: But inside the courtroom, the judge made a decision that human rights groups called a miscarriage of justice.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: (Foreign language spoken).
FADEL: The judge said the court proved the three men were not journalists and that they fabricated news, although no evidence to support that was presented in the case. Mohamed received the most severe sentence of three years and six months in prison along with a fine. His two colleagues - Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian journalist, and Peter Greste, an Australian journalist who was deported - each got three years as well. Fahmy and Mohamed were taken back to prison.
MARWA OMARA: (Crying).
FADEL: Fahmy's wife wept in the chaotic courtroom. They'd expected good news today, and Fahmy's brother begged the Canadian ambassador for help as the ambassador shuffled past him.
MOHAMED FAHMY: This is unbelievable injustice, unbelievable. Please help us, please, OK? (Unintelligible) now, please.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're with you.
FADEL: Fahmy was a dual Egyptian and Canadian citizen. But he renounced his Egyptian citizenship after being led to believe he would be deported to Canada if he did so. Today, he's back behind bars. Outside the courtroom, Fahmy's wife, Marwa Omara, sobbed.
OMARA: I don't know how I'm going to survive this without him. He really did nothing. All what I'm asking is justice and for what happened with Peter to happen with Mohamed.
FADEL: Peter Greste was previously convicted, but deported as a foreigner. He was retried and convicted in absentia today. The verdict was met with swift criticism. Amnesty International called it baseless, politicized and an affront to justice that sound the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt. Amal Clooney, a high-profile human rights lawyer representing Fahmy, said she would be meeting with officials to push for the deportation of her client.
AMAL CLOONEY: It sets a dangerous precedent in Egypt that journalists can be locked up simply for reporting the news and that courts can be used as political tools.
FADEL: Clooney said she'd also push for a pardon, something Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has hinted at in the past.
CLOONEY: He's always said this prosecution was brought before I was president. I wish it hadn't happened. I wish they'd been sent back to their countries. Well, this is the time to intervene and end this fiasco.
FADEL: Tonight, Baher Mohamed, who is Egyptian and cannot be deported, won't be home with his three children. Before the verdict, he said despite his innocence and the lack of evidence, he knew he might go back behind bars.
MOHAMED: I might be sent back to prison. And I'm willing to take all this for press freedom because this fight came in my life, and I'm willing to continue this fight.
FADEL: They plan to appeal the decision. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.
RATH: Tonight, the State Department issued a statement expressing disappointment and concern about the verdict in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.