CAIRO — An Egyptian judge on Saturday handed down unexpectedly harsh verdicts in the trial of three journalists from the Al Jazeera English news channel, sentencing them to three years in prison on charges that legal experts said were unfounded and politically motivated.
The verdict on Saturday was especially stunning because Egyptian officials had repeatedly signaled that they viewed the trial as a nuisance that had brought unwanted scrutiny of the government. Families for the journalists, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, said they had expected that the men would either be exonerated on Saturday or sentenced to time already served.
But instead, the judge, Hassan Farid, upheld what human rights advocates said was among many baseless accusations leveled during the journalists’ long legal odyssey: that they had “broadcast false news” about Egypt on Al Jazeera.
The judge also said that the men, who had all previously worked for other international news organizations, were not journalists because they lacked the necessary credentials.
Prosecutors had accused them of plotting with the Muslim Brotherhood to produce false news reports, but had offered no evidence of either collaboration with the Brotherhood or any erroneous broadcasts.
The verdict appeared to reinforce a growing conviction among analysts and diplomats that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who rules without a legislature, does not command full obedience from Egypt’s fractious bureaucracy, including its courts. Mr. Sisi has said in the past that he would have deported the journalists rather than try them.
At the same time, the verdict suggested enthusiasm in Egypt’s ruling circles for restricting free speech, even two years after the military takeover that brought Mr. Sisi to power.
“I’m completely shocked,” said Adel Fahmy, Mr. Fahmy’s brother, after the verdict was read. “Everything was pointing towards exoneration today. I was coming here for good news. They keep on disappointing us with this unbelievable judicial system.”
Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohamed, who had been free on bail, were remanded into custody after the hearing on Saturday. Mr. Greste, an Australian citizen, was deported in February under a presidential decree that allows the deportation of foreigners convicted of crimes.
Mr. Fahmy, who holds Canadian citizenship, could still be deported under the same decree, but Mr. Mohamed, an Egyptian citizen, would not be eligible. Their families and lawyers said they would appeal the sentence.
Amal Clooney, a lawyer for Mr. Fahmy, told journalists after the hearing that she would ask Mr. Sisi to pardon her client and his colleagues. “What just happened in that courtroom was an outrage,” Ms. Clooney said.
The three men were arrested in December 2013. Their arrests were among thousands carried out by the government after the military ouster in July 2013 of Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egypt’s first fairly elected president.
The decision to prosecute the journalists was seen as part of a broader attempt by the military-backed government to stifle the news media and free expression. This summer, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at least 18 journalists were imprisoned in Egypt — the highest number since the group began keeping records in 1990.
Analysts have said that journalists were also primarily victims of the damaged relations between Egypt and the government of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera and is a strong supporter of the Brotherhood.
In a statement, Al Jazeera called the verdict “heavily politicized” and a “deliberate attack on press freedoms.”
The journalists were convicted after a first trial that human rights advocates said showcased Egypt’s frequently slapdash prosecutions and fickle court judgments. Over the course of the trial, prosecutors offered no evidence for their most explosive accusation, that the journalists had colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood. Ms. Clooney also noted on Saturday that in their initial trial, the journalists were found by the judge to have been “in a plot with Satan.”
In January, Egypt’s highest appeals court ordered a retrial.