US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Egypt to uphold press freedom on a surprise visit to Cairo, the eve of a verdict in the trial of Al Jazeera’s detained journalists.
An Egyptian court is due on Monday to deliver its ruling in the trial of three Al-Jazeera journalists and 17 other co- defendants, accused of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood in a case that has sparked an international outcry.
Kerry became the highest-ranking American official to visit Egypt since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power after overwhelmingly winning an election in May.
“I emphasised also our strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” Kerry said at a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri on Sunday.
“We also discussed the essential role of a vibrant civil society, free press, rule of law and due process in a democracy,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s three journalists – Peter Greste, an Australian, Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian national, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian – were arrested on December 29 and charged with reporting news that was “damaging to national security”.
They deny the charges and Al Jazeera has said the accusations are absurd.
Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy was released this week after being detained without charge since August 2013. Elshamy was freed on medical grounds after spending five months on a hunger strike.
Human rights groups say the arrests of journalists show that authorities are trampling on freedom of expression.
Sisi took control of the government in July of last year after ousting a democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood group from power.
Since then, Cairo has outlawed the Brotherhood and sentenced hundreds of its members and other anti-government protesters to death in trials that lasted only a few hours.
Washington refrained from calling the change of government a coup, an assessment that would have forced it under US law to stop providing Egypt with billions in annual aid.
In Sunday’s meeting, Kerry said he was “confident” Egypt will receive Apache gunships soon.
“The Apaches will come and they will come very, very soon,” Kerry said.
During Kerry’s visit, part of a tour of countries in the Middle East and Europe, he also discussed the violence in Iraq and Syria.
He said Arab countries should resist funding Sunni fighters, adding that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has become a threat to the entire Middle East, and perhaps beyond.
Both Kerry and Shoukry said it is up to Iraqis to decide their leaders, but at the same time they said Baghdad must create an inclusive government if it hopes to quell the violence.
Shoukry said Egypt is looking to work with other countries to help the Iraqi people.