CAIRO (AFP) ― Egypt’s president said Tuesday the authorities will not interfere in the judiciary, as protests were staged worldwide in solidarity with Al-Jazeera journalists, including an Australian, whose jailing has sparked outrage.
The United States is leading calls for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to pardon the journalists convicted of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood movement and “spreading false news.”
A Cairo court sentenced award-winning Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy to seven years in jail on Monday, while producer Baher Mohamed was handed 10 years.
Eleven of 20 defendants who stood trial were given 10-year sentences in absentia, including one Dutch journalist and two British journalists. Those sentenced can appeal.
Since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Egyptian authorities have been incensed by Al-Jazeera’s coverage of their deadly crackdown on his supporters.
They consider the pan-Arab satellite network as the voice of Qatar, and accuse Doha of backing Morsi’s Brotherhood, while the emirate openly denounces the repression of the Islamist supporters.
Sissi, the ex-army chief who led Morsi’s ouster before being elected president in May, said the authorities “will not interfere in judicial matters.”
“We have to respect judiciary rulings, and not comment them even if others don’t understand them,” he said in a televised speech.
Sissi’s comments came a day after the White House urged the Egyptian authorities to pardon the journalists.
But a presidency official told AFP Sissi cannot legally do so until a final court ruling after any appeals.
Monday’s ruling sparked an international outcry, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denouncing “a chilling and draconian sentence.”
Greste’s shattered parents vowed to keep fighting for press freedom as Australia joined the call for Sissi to issue a pardon.
“This is a very dark time not only for our family, but for journalism generally,” his father Juris said in Brisbane. “The campaign for media freedom and free speech must never end. Journalism is not a crime.”
Al-Jazeera, whose journalists had been working in Cairo without official accreditation, condemned the verdict as “unjust.”
Journalists around the world demonstrated Tuesday in solidarity with those jailed, including staff at the London headquarters of the BBC, Greste’s former employer, and reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.
“The verdict is unjust, the case is unfounded,” BBC news director James Harding told the gathering, before a one-minute silent protest was observed exactly 24 hours after the sentencing.
Scores of journalists posted pictures of themselves on Twitter with their mouths covered in duct-tape, posting under the protest hashtag #FreeAJStaff.
France on Tuesday joined Britain and the Netherlands in summoning the Egyptian ambassadors.
But reactions were limited to verbal objections, as the West cannot afford to harm ties with Egypt, the first Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel and a strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East.
A day before the ruling, U.S. officials announced that $572 million (420 million euros) in aid, frozen since October, had been released to Egypt.
The Al-Jazeera ruling is the latest issue in Egypt to concern rights groups since a 2011 uprising toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
And since Morsi’s ouster, political unrest has reached unprecedented levels in Egypt, with more than 1,400 people killed and at least 15,000 jailed in a government crackdown.