CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Tuesday rejected calls from the United States and other Western governments that he pardon or commute the sentences of three Al-Jazeera journalists who were handed heavy prison terms a day earlier in a court ruling that raised international outrage.
El-Sissi’s tough stance reflected an image the former army chief has sought to project to the Egyptian public — one of a strong leader defying foreign pressure on Egypt. Nationalist media bolstered that narrative Tuesday, praising the verdicts as a sign of the judiciary standing up to outside interference.
In a nationally televised speech to graduating military cadets, el-Sissi said he would not interfere in court rulings or the judicial process. Legal experts said that doesn’t rule out a pardon later after any appeals are exhausted — a process that could take months, with the three journalists likely to remain in prison for the duration.
Whether or not a pardon could eventually be in the cards, el-Sissi ‘s priority appeared to be to show he would not be pushed. The case is deeply tied in politics. Egypt appears determined to punish the Al-Jazeera network, which it accuses of being a mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president that el-Sissi ousted last summer.
By extension, Egypt is also targeting the Gulf nation of Qatar, which was a close ally of Morsi and owns Al-Jazeera. Also, el-Sissi’s powerful Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are strongly opposed to both the Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. Those allies have given Egypt billions of dollars in aid since Morsi’s ouster.
The verdict also sends a message to the media against covering Islamists and dissenting voices amid the fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood. Al-Jazeera, particularly its Arabic service, was nearly the only locally based network that provided a platform for Islamists and the opponents of the regime.
The three journalists — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed — contended throughout their trial that they were pawns in the Egypt-Qatar enmity.
They were charged with helping the Brotherhood and with falsifying their coverage of protests by Morsi supporters in order to damage Egypt’s security.
A Cairo criminal court on Monday sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years. Rights groups described their 5-month trial as a sham, with no evidence presented to back the charges.
The White House said the ruling “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom” and was a “blow to democratic progress.”
It called on el-Sissi to intervene to bring about their immediate release. Australia and other governments made similar calls.
The families of both Greste and Fahmy said Tuesday they are still considering their next move. Greste’s brother, Mike, said they will appeal but are still studying how to proceed, adding they want to make “full use of legal avenues.”
Greste said he visited his brother in jail Tuesday and found him “strong.”
“He wanted to assure us that he is determined to continue the fight for his freedom and pick himself up,” Greste said.
Fahmy’s family also visited him in prison and said they were working to get hospital treatment for his shoulder, which was injured before his arrest but worsened into a permanent disability due to neglect in prison.
In his speech, el-Sissi said that to ensure strong institutions, “we must respect court rulings and not comment on them, even if others don’t understand these rulings.”
“We will not interfere in court verdicts” he said. He added that he spoke to the justice minister and “I told him one word: We will not interfere in judicial matters because the Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary.”
Under the constitution, the president has the power to issue a pardon or commute the sentences.
El-Sissi’s comments do not rule out a pardon later after appeal, said Sayed Abu Zayed, a lawyer for the Press Syndicate who attended the trial in solidarity with the journalists. A pardon now, before appeal, “would be considered interference,” he said. “Talking about pardon comes only after they have exhausted all avenues of litigation.”
But other lawyers said el-Sissi could issue a pardon now without appearing to interfere in courts, since initial verdicts in criminal courts immediately go into effect. The appeal is a separate process before one of Egypt’s highest courts, the Cassation Court, which reviews only whether procedural flaws were committed and can order a retrial.
Ahmed Raghab, a rights lawyer, said el-Sissi was addressing his home audience. “He has presented himself as a powerful leader who is here to fix matters, and succumbing to pressure would shake that image,” he said. “But I don’t think this is over yet.”
Raghab said the real target of this trial is freedom of the press, and the animosity with Qatar is used as a cover to fuel the propaganda against any outspoken media. “The government didn’t shut down the Qatar embassy,” he said. “The real victims are journalists and freedom of the press.”
Qatari officials have not commented on the verdict. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University, said Qatar has few options because it has stuck so closely to the Brotherhood without “recognizing the new realities in Egypt.”
“Qatar has marginalized itself so much it is becoming impotent in influencing things in Egypt or elsewhere in the region,” he said.
The Al-Jazeera journalists’ arrest last December was part of the broad crackdown against Islamists in which hundreds have been killed and thousands arrested. The journalists say they are being prosecuted simply for doing their job. During the 5-month trial, prosecutors presented no evidence backing the charges, at times citing random video footage found with the defendants that even the judge dismissed as irrelevant.
Amnesty International called the sentences a “travesty.” Human Rights Watch said the journalists were sentenced on “zero evidence” of wrongdoing and that the judges were “caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by” el-Sissi.
But Egyptian media Tuesday trumpeted the ruling.
“The courts stand up to foreign interference,” the daily El-Tahrir declared in a front page headline.
The Al-Watan newspaper declared with pride that the verdict “pits Egypt against the world.”
AP correspondent Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.
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