CAIRO – Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Tuesday he will not interfere in court rulings, rebuffing calls from the United States and other Western governments that he pardon or commute the sentences of three Al-Jazeera journalists handed heavy prison terms a day earlier.
The White House said the ruling “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom” and was a “blow to democratic progress.” It called on el-Sissi to intervene to bring about the immediate release of the three — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed.
Australia and other governments have also urged el-Sissi to do so for the three journalists, whose families have said they will appeal. Appeals could take months, and the three are likely to remain in prison during the process.
In a televised address to graduating military cadets, el-Sissi said, “We will not interfere in court verdicts” — repeating the phrase twice in his speech to drive home the point.
He said he spoke to the justice minister Monday evening and “I told him one word: We will not interfere in judicial matters because the Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary.”
“If we desire (strong) state institutions, we must respect court rulings and not comment on them even if others don’t understand these rulings,” he said.
Under the constitution, the president has the power to issue a pardon or commute the sentences.
Prosecutors accused the three journalists of promoting or belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and of falsifying their coverage of protests to hurt Egypt’s security and make it appear the country is sliding into civil war. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The snub to the United States was sharper because only a day before the rulings, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with el-Sissi and said he had a shown a commitment to reviewing the judiciary and Egypt’s human rights laws. Kerry later denounced the verdict as “chilling and draconian.”
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement, rejecting foreign interference. Egyptian media Tuesday trumpeted the government’s defiance. A front-page headline on the daily El-Tahrir newspaper portrayed the court as standing up to what it called an attempt by Kerry to sway the verdict during his visit to Egypt.