Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suggested on Thursday he was considering pardoning journalists of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station jailed in his country for nearly a year.
Human rights groups condemned the trial of the journalists as a sham, Western governments have decried the verdict, and the United Nations questioned Egypt’s judicial independence. The affair has contributed to tensions between Egypt and Qatar.
The three journalists were sentenced in June to between seven and 10 years in jail on charges including spreading lies to help a “terrorist organisation”, an allusion to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, in a ruling that sparked a global outcry.
“Let us say that this matter is being discussed to solve the issue,” Sisi said in an interview with France 24 when asked if he could pardon the journalists.
Asked if a decision might be made soon, he said: “If we find this appropriate for the national security of Egypt, we will do it.”
Relations between Egypt and Qatar have been strained since mid-2013 when then-army chief Sisi ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and cracked down hard on his Muslim Brotherhood, arresting thousands of supporters.
But those tensions have showed signs of easing recently. Qatar expelled prominent Brotherhood leaders in September and Egypt on Wednesday welcomed an agreement to end an eight-month dispute amongst Gulf Arab states over Qatar’s support for the Islamist group.
Sisi has previously refused to intervene in the al-Jazeera case, suggesting that doing so would undermine judicial independence. But he said in July he wished the journalists had been deported and not tried, a view he reaffirmed on Thursday.
Another option would be for Sisi to utilise a decree he issued last week allowing him to repatriate foreign prisoners and raising the prospect that Australian Peter Greste and possibly Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy could be deported to face trial or complete their sentences at home.
The third Al Jazeera journalist behind bars, Baher Mohamed, is Egyptian, so would not be expected to benefit.
Al Jazeera has called the accusations against its three journalists absurd.
In response to Sisi’s comments, a spokesman for the network said in an emailed statement: “The Egyptian authorities have it in their power to release our journalists. World opinion expects this to happen speedily, and for all three to be freed.”