Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said he wished journalists in prison in his country had been deported rather than tried, less than two weeks after three Al Jazeera staff were sentenced to seven years in prison for “aiding a terrorist group.”
Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that Sisi told a meeting of local editors that the trials had hurt Egypt. "The sentencing of several journalists had a very negative effect, and we had nothing to do with it," the former army chief was quoted as saying in the newspaper’s Monday edition. "I wish they were deported after their arrest instead of being put on trial."
Sisi did not mention anyone by name.
His comments came less than two weeks after Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, an Australian citizen; Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen; and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian citizen, were sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group, and reporting "false news" in the aftermath of a coup against the Brotherhood-backed president, Mohamed Morsi. Al Jazeera has always rejected the charges against its journalists and maintains their innocence.
Mohamed was sentenced to an additional three years in prison for "possessing ammunition." The evidence against him was a spent bullet casing he had picked up during a protest in Cairo.
Sisi said afterward that he would not interfere in the verdicts, which were condemned by governments and human rights activists across the world. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the June 23 sentences "chilling and draconian" and urged Egyptian authorities to address international concerns.
Evidence presented against the journalists included a pop video, Greste's vacation photos from Germany, a BBC report about Somalia and a Sky News Arabia film about an Egyptian horse sanctuary.
The sentences can be appealed, a process that can take months. Egypt's Constitution allows the president to offer clemency, but experts argue the appeals process must be exhausted first.
Greste's brother Andrew Greste said he was heartened by Sisi’s latest comments.
"I'm sure images of Peter in the cage in the court are not images Egypt really wants distributed around the world," Andrew Greste said in Brisbane.
"The publicity they're getting out of this I'm sure is not the publicity any country would want ... I'd like to think that there's ... an amicable solution."
Al Jazeera and wire services