CAIRO – Egypt's president acknowledged for the first time that the heavy sentences handed down to three Al-Jazeera journalists had a "very negative" impact on his country's reputation, saying he wished they were never put on trial.
The comments by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to editors of Egyptian media outlets were published late Sunday. They were the first public recognition by Egyptian officials that the case had been damaging to the country's relations with the international community.
The sentencing of the three journalists on June 23, after a five-month trial described as a "sham" by rights groups, caused an international outcry.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences "chilling and draconian," and urged Egyptian authorities to address international concerns. A day after the sentences and following an outpouring of international condemnation, el-Sissi appeared to be rebuffing the pressure, saying in televised comments that he will not interfere in court rulings.
In his remarks published Sunday, he said the case represented one of the foreign policy challenges facing Egypt, but stopped short of saying whether he will issue a clemency. He seemed to be refuting claims that the case is politically motivated, and a reflection of the tension between Egypt and Qatar, the Gulf state that owns the television network. Qatar was a supporter of the ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood group. After Morsi's ouster last year, many of the group's leaders moved to Qatar to avoid an intense government crackdown that landed thousands in jail.
"The verdict issued against a number of journalists had very negative consequences; and we had nothing to do with it," el-Sissi said, suggesting it was an entirely legal matter. "I wished they were deported immediately after their arrest instead of being put on trial." His comments were published in the online version of Al-Masry Al-Youm daily.
The three Al-Jazeera journalists were award-winning Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed. They were arrested on Dec. 29 and accused of aiding the Brotherhood by providing it with a media platform and equipment. The Egyptians were also accused of belonging to the Brotherhood, the group the government declared a terrorist organization. Greste and Fahmy each received seven-year sentences, while Mohammed got 10 years. Three other foreign journalists were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.
The sentences can be appealed, a process that can take months. Egypt's constitution allows the president to issue a clemency, but experts argue the appeals process must be exhausted first.