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Three Al Jazeera Journalists Join Egypt’s Growing Prison Population

Two Al Jazeera English journalists working in Egypt were sentenced Monday to seven years in prison, and a third to 10 years, after a court convicted them on charges related to terrorism. Since their arrests in December, the journalists have denied all charges and said they were being prosecuted for covering the protests surrounding the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first civilian and Islamist president.

The journalists’ trial began Feb. 20, and the accusations against them have been widely criticized from the outset. Earlier this year, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the charges were “vague” and had “led to increased fears among the media in general, both national and international.”

The nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also denounced the charges. “We know it’s a political case,” the group’s Middle East coordinator, Sherif Mansour, told Al Jazeera. “They’re basically charged for being journalists.”

Since 2000, CPJ has collected data on journalists who have been imprisoned or killed in an attempt to show where journalists are being targeted because of their profession. In 2013, five of the 211 journalists jailed worldwide that were documented by the organization were in Egypt.

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The CPJ acknowledges that those numbers are only “a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight, annually on December 1,” so journalists who are imprisoned and released throughout the year aren’t reflected in the numbers in the chart at left. As of May, the CPJ had recorded 16 journalists imprisoned in Egypt.

Those records are partly dependent on how much exposure arrests receive. The plight of the journalists sentenced Monday — Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed, has been highly visible; foreign ministers have made statements about their case, and Al Jazeera has protested their innocence. But other journalists might not receive the same publicity. According to Mansour, “It’s getting more and more difficult to keep track of the number of journalists in prison” in post-revolution Egypt.

The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that the number of total prisoners in Egypt has grown from 34,000 in 1992 to 66,000 in 2011. That’s not attributable Egypt’s growing population: In 1992, there were 58 prisoners for every 100,000 people in Egypt. By 2011, that rate had risen to 80 per 100,000.

Pretrial detainees made up 9.9 percent of prisoners in Egypt in 2006, the latest year for which data is available. That percentage may have risen since September, when then-interim President Adly Mansour issued a decree that scrapped the maximum period of pretrial detention (previously, it was 24 months for defendants facing the death penalty and 18 months for those facing life imprisonment).

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor has expressed concerns that pretrial detainees in Egypt are sometimes held alongside convicted prisoners. Its 2013 report on human rights in the country highlights wider concerns about the “harsh conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrests and prolonged pretrial detentions.” It also cites what it says is evidence of torture in the prisons:

According to domestic and international human rights organizations, police and prison guards sometimes resorted to torture to extract information from detainees, including minors, usually beatings with fists, whips, rifle butts, or other objects; electric shocks; sexual assault; and forcing detainees to crawl on broken glass.

Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey on Monday called for the verdict in the case of its journalists to be overturned. “We will continue with resolve and determination until Baher, Peter and Mohamed are free and safely reunited with their families,” he said.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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