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Egypt’s military-dominated government has delivered a humiliating, public slap in the face to John Kerry, the US secretary of state, by sentencing three al-Jazeera journalists to long prison terms only hours after Kerry personally expressed his deep concern about the case in high-level meetings in Cairo. The snub represents a disastrous beginning to Kerry’s already fraught Middle East tour, which took him to Baghdad on Monday for crisis talks about the Islamist extremist uprising.

The verdict, by a court responsive to government wishes, will also be seen as a deliberate, crude signal to President Barack Obama, who criticised Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record after the former general, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, seized power in a coup last year. Sisi has since had himself voted president. His elected predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, and thousands of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters remain in jail while hundreds of others have been killed.

In what US officials said were “candid” talks with Sisi, Kerry “emphasised our strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association”. He noted a number of promises by Egyptian leaders “are yet to be fulfilled”, but added that “the United States remains deeply committed to seeing Egypt succeed”.

The hollowness of all this careful diplomatic language was exposed for all to see by the court’s verdict, which diplomats and observers said was reached without the complication of supporting evidence. It seems clear now that Kerry was wasting his breath; the sentences were pre-determined, intended as a stark warning to Egyptian and foreign media and as a symbol of the regime’s determination to demonstrate its independence of Washington.

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