Sisi will not interfere with journalists’ verdicts despite outcry

Sentences against Al Jazeera staff widely criticized; Kerry calls seven-year prison terms ‘chilling and draconian’

Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, left, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed listen to the verdict on Monday inside the defendants cage during their trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

Egypt's newly elected President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said Tuesday he would not interfere in matters of the country’s judiciary after an international outcry over long prison sentences given to three Al Jazeera journalists a day earlier.

"We will not interfere in judicial rulings," Sisi said in a televised speech at a military graduation ceremony in Cairo. "We must respect judicial rulings and not criticize them even if others do not understand this."

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The journalists — an Australian, a Canadian-Egyptian and an Egyptian — were each given seven years on Monday for aiding a "terrorist organization," a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. One of the three, Baher Mohamed, was given an extra three years for possession of a spent bullet he said he had picked up off the ground.

The three have been held at Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison for six months. Al Jazeera and the BBC held a silent protest 24 hours after the verdicts in solidarity with the detained journalists.

The sentences were widely criticized by rights groups and Western governments, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling them "chilling and draconian" and the U.N. warning of "a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt."

Kerry — who met with Sisi in Cairo the day before the ruling was handed down and raised the issue of the journalists — said Monday, “When I heard about the verdict today I was so concerned about it, frankly, disappointed in it, that I immediately picked up the telephone and talked to the foreign minister of Egypt and registered our serious displeasure at this kind of verdict.”

Egypt's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying that it "rejects any comment from a foreign party that casts doubt on the independence of the Egyptian judiciary and the justice of its verdicts."

Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said in a statement Monday, “There is only one sensible outcome now — for the verdict to be overturned and justice to be recognized by Egypt.”

Judicial sources said the verdicts could be appealed before a higher court and a pardon was still possible. Egypt’s public prosecutor last week ordered the release of another Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, on health grounds after he spent 147 days on a hunger strike.

Sisi was elected last month, less than a year after removing President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, after mass protests against his rule. The Brotherhood, which says it is a peaceful organization, was banned and declared a terrorist group after Morsi was toppled.

Morsi has been in jail since his ouster and is on trial for inciting the killing of opposition protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012. He also faces charges of espionage in collaboration with the Palestinian group Hamas.

Egypt’s judiciary under Sisi has stirred controversy by handing down more than 700 death sentences for alleged Morsi supporters since March. A judge subsequently commuted most of those to life in prison.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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