EGYPT’S new president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has said he will not interfere in court rulings, rebuffing calls from western governments that he pardon or commute the sentences of three al-Jazeera journalists handed heavy prison terms.
There has been an avalanche of international condemnation after the three men were each jailed for seven years.
Rights groups described their five-month trial as a sham, with no evidence presented to back the terrorism-related charges against them. They say the three were being punished simply for their reporting on protests by supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. He is now on trial for his alleged role in suppressing protests against his rule.
The United States has said the ruling “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom” and is a “blow to democratic progress”.
It called on General Sisi to intervene to bring about the immediate release of the three – Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed. Australia and other governments have also urged Gen Sisi to intervene. Relatives of the three men said they intended to appeal, but the process can take months and they are unlikely to be freed in the interim.
In a televised address to military cadetship graduates, Gen Sisi said: “We will not interfere in court verdicts” – repeating the phrase twice.
He said he spoke to his justice minister on Monday evening. “I told him one word: We will not interfere in judicial matters because the Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary.
“If we desire (strong) state institutions, we must respect court rulings and not comment on them even if others don’t understand these rulings.”
Under the constitution, Gen Sisi has the power to issue a pardon or commute the sentences.
The journalists’ arrest last December was part of a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after Gen Sisi, the former army chief, removed Mr Morsi last summer.
The journalists’ trial was further politicised by the Egyptian government’s deep enmity with the Gulf nation Qatar, which was an ally of the Brotherhood and owns al-Jazeera.
Egyptian authorities accuse al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood, a claim the network denies.
Gen Sisi’s powerful Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, share his stance on al-Jazeera and the Brotherhood. They have given Egypt billions of dollars in aid since Morsi’s overthrow.
Prosecutors accused the three of promoting or belonging to the Brotherhood and of falsifying their coverage of protests to make it appear Egypt was sliding into civil war.
The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
The journalists say they are being prosecuted just for doing their job.
During the five-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.
Mr Mohammed, the team’s producer, had three years tacked on to his seven-year sentence for possession of ammunition, referring to a spent shell he picked up at a protest.
Amnesty called the sentences a “travesty of justice”. US-based Human Rights Watch said the judges were “caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by” Gen Sisi.
Only a day before the rulings, US secretary of state John Kerry met Gen Sisi and said he had a shown a commitment to reviewing the judiciary and human rights laws.
Mr Kerry later denounced the verdict as “chilling and draconian”.
Egyptian authorities strongly rejected foreign interference.
Its media also trumpeted defiance. A front-page headline on the daily El-Tahrir newspaper portrayed the court as standing up to a bid by Mr Kerry to sway the verdict. Another newspaper, al-Watan, proudly declared the verdict “pits Egypt against the world”.