CAIRO – Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Tuesday he will not interfere in court rulings, rebuffing calls from the United States and other Western governments that he pardon or commute the sentences of three Al-Jazeera journalists handed heavy prison terms a day earlier.
The verdict of seven years in prison against the journalists brought a landslide of international condemnation. Rights groups described their 5-month trial as a sham, with no evidence presented to back the terrorism related charges against them, saying the three were being punished simply for their reporting on protests by backers of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
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 the immediate release of the three — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed.
Australia and other governments have also urged el-Sissi to do so for the three journalists, whose families have said they will appeal. Appeals could take months, and the three are likely to remain in prison during the process.
In a televised address to graduating military cadets, el-Sissi said, "We will not interfere in court verdicts" — repeating the phrase twice in his speech to drive home the point.
He said he spoke to the justice minister Monday evening and "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," he said.
Under the constitution, the president has the power to issue a pardon or commute the sentences.
The journalists' arrest last December was part of the broad crackdown against Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood after el-Sissi — in his former post of army chief — removed Morsi last summer. The journalists' trial was further politicized by the Egyptian government's deep enmity with the Gulf nation Qatar, which was a strong ally of Morsi's Brotherhood and owns the Al-Jazeera network.
Egyptian authorities accuse Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood, a claim the network denies. 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.
Prosecutors accused the three journalists of promoting or belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and of falsifying their coverage of protests to hurt Egypt's security and make it appear the country is sliding into civil war. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The journalists, say they are being prosecuted simply for doing their job and are pawns in the political rivalry. 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. Mohammed, the Al-Jazeera team's producer, had three years tacked onto his 7-year sentence for possession of ammunition, referring to a spent shell he picked up at a protest.
Amnesty International called the sentences a "travesty of justice." 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.
The snub to the United States was sharper because only a day before the rulings, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with el-Sissi and said he had a shown a commitment to reviewing the judiciary and Egypt's human rights laws. Kerry later denounced the verdict as "chilling and draconian."
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement, rejecting foreign interference. Egyptian media Tuesday trumpeted the government's defiance. A front-page headline on the daily El-Tahrir newspaper portrayed the court as standing up to what it called an attempt by Kerry to sway the verdict during his visit to Egypt.
Another newspaper, al-Watan, proudly declared in its headline that the verdict "pits Egypt against the world."