Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi made his first sympathetic remarks about three imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists, saying he wished they had been deported and not put on trial, an Egyptian newspaper reported on Monday.
An Egyptian court last month handed down prison sentences of seven to 10 years to Australian reporter Peter Greste; Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen and Al Jazeera English Cairo bureau chief; and Baher Mohamed, a producer for the network, prompting widespread international condemnation.
“The verdict had very negative effects,” Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm private newspaper quoted Sissi as saying during a meeting with local journalists on Sunday.
“I wished they were deported right after they were arrested instead of getting put on trial,” Sissi added.
Sissi's initial reaction to the ruling was that he would not interfere in court verdicts. Monday's comments could be a hint he might use his presidential power to pardon the journalists, who still have a chance to appeal the verdict in a higher court.
Former army chief Sissi last year orchestrated the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood member, in reaction to mass protests against his rule.
Morsi's ouster was followed by a security crackdown on Islamist activists and some - mostly Islamist - media outlets including the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network.
Al Jazeera, whose Qatari owners back the Brotherhood and have been at odds with Egypt's leadership, said the ruling defied “logic, sense and any semblance of justice.”
Washington had described the verdict against the journalists as “chilling, draconian sentences” that must be reversed, and Britain, whose ambassador attended the sentencing, summoned the Egyptian ambassador to protest.
The three journalists, detained in December, were convicted with aiding “a terrorist group” - a reference to Morsi's Brotherhood group - by broadcasting what was termed as lies that harmed national security and supplying money, equipment and information to a group of Egyptians.
Egypt has banned the Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist organization.