CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said on Thursday that a presidential pardon is "being examined" for the three Al-Jazeera journalists who were handed heavy prison terms in a court ruling that raised international outrage.
El-Sissi told France 24 that a pardon "is being examined to resolve the matter." When asked if he will do it "soon" he answered that the journalists would receive pardons only if it was "appropriate for the Egyptian national security."
The comments are the first indication that the Egyptian government might be considering freeing the journalists. El-Sissi has previously dismissed the idea of a presidential pardon, saying it would be an inappropriate interference in the Egyptian judicial process. His position was a reflection of Egypt's determination to punish the Qatar-based network, which it accuses of being a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president that el-Sissi ousted last summer.
The three journalists — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed — were charged with helping the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt's government has declared a terrorist group, and with falsifying their coverage of protests by Morsi supporters. A Cairo criminal court in June sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years. Rights groups described their 5-month trial as a sham, with no evidence presented to back the charges.
They appealed and a court set an appeals hearing for Jan. 1, 2015.
The journalists throughout their trial contended that they were pawns in the Egypt-Qatar dispute.
This week, Egypt appeared to welcome an easing of its longstanding tensions with Qatar, after el-Sissi's main backer, Saudi Arabia, asked Egypt to support a reconciliation agreement between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Qatar gave billions of dollars in aid to Morsi's government before it was overthrown. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have since stepped in with billions of dollars in support for el-Sissi's government.
In the interview, el-Sissi repeated his earlier reservations over interfering in the judiciary by saying, "you in your countries respect the law and judiciary ... why don't you see that in Egypt, there is law and judiciary that ought to be respected as well."
However he reiterated earlier comments saying that if he were in power at the time of the arrest of the journalists, he would have simply deported them.
"If I were there, I would have seen that it was most appropriate for Egypt, for its national security and for the situation to deport them and close the case," he said.
Last week, el-Sissi issued a new decree granting him the power to deport foreign defendants convicted or accused of crimes, a move that was seen as providing a potential legal instrument with which to free the journalists.
The Al-Jazeera journalists' arrest last December was part of the broad crackdown against Islamists in which hundreds have been killed and thousands arrested. The journalists say they are being prosecuted simply for doing their job. During the 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.
Amnesty International called the sentences a "travesty." 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.