President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said Monday during meeting with the Union of Arab Journalists that he is unable to issue a pardon for three Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned in June.
A high-profile court case featuring Al Jazeera English Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, correspondent Peter Greste, and producer Baher Mohamed caused widespread international condemnation.
Fahmy and Greste were each handed seven years in a maximum security prison, while Mohamed was given seven years, plus an extra three years for being in possession of a spent bullet casing.
Speaking to the union, Al-Sisi that in the future, deportation would be a more appropriate punishment for foreign journalists deemed guilty of “abuses”.
According to a statement released by the presidential spokesman, Al-Sisi‘s response came when a “number” of journalists appealed for clemency in the much-publicised Al Jazeera case.
Al-Sisi said that he cannot comment on court cases, stressing that the judiciary is completely independent, and he cannot issue a pardon until the case’s appeal process is complete.
Al-Sisi added that “only five Egyptian journalists are currently detained”, and that the detained journalists are not charged with anything relating to publishing news. He noted that he has ensured their proper treatment.
He also said the 2014 constitution “has provisions that included an unprecedented with regard to freedom of the press and publishing”. A number of national and international non-governmental organisations have questioned the validity of this argument.
An outpouring of condemnation was quick to follow the high-profile case, with local and international rights groups condemning the “politically orchestrated” trial. The groups called the verdict “disturbing sign for the future of the Egyptian press”, and demanded the immediate release of the sentenced defendants.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement noting that prosecution in the case “failed to present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing”. The group accused the prosecution of instead choosing to use the case as “the latest step in Egypt’s unrelenting assault on free expression”.
“Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President Al-Sisi,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
The statement called the trial a “miscarriage of justice based on zero evidence”.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has also been vocal about detained journalists. The group said that contrary to Al-Sisi’s comments to journalists on Monday, over 80 journalists were incarcerated in Egypt and face charges of illegal assembly and publishing false news.