Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has said he wishes imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists had not been put on trial, an Egyptian daily reported on Monday, in the president's first encouraging remarks about a case that has sparked a global outcry.
Three Al Jazeera English journalists – Australian reporter Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed – were sentenced last month to between seven and 10 years in jail.
They were convicted of charges including spreading false news that harmed national security and aiding a terrorist group – identified by the authorities as the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling has sparked a flurry of international condemnation and heightened fears of the growing muzzling of media dissent in Egypt.
In a Sunday briefing with local editors, El-Sisi expressed concerns over the "negative effects" the jailing had caused, according to Egypt's privately owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
"The verdict had very negative effects; and we had no hand in it." El-Sisi was quoted as saying during the meeting.
"I wish they'd been deported right after they were arrested instead of being put on trial," the former army chief added, in an apparent reference to Greste and the other three foreigners convicted in absentia in the case.
In his first reaction a day after the 23 June ruling, El-Sisi said in a televised speech that he would not interfere in court rulings, saying the judiciary was independent.
Egyptian authorities have been incensed by the coverage of the Qatar-based satellite network since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year and an ensuing state crackdown on his supporters.
The network has contributed to straining ties between Cairo and Doha, which Egypt accuses of backing Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group—now banned and declared a terrorist organisation.
Al Jazeera has repeatedly denied the allegations against its staff and said the court ruling defied "logic, sense, and any semblance of justice."
Australia said it was appalled by the verdict and Washington slammed it as "'chilling and draconian." Both western powers have called on new El-Sisi to pardon the jailed journalists who can still appeal the sentences.
A judicial source had said El-Sisi can only issue pardons after the appeals process has ended.
The family of Australian Greste said they were encouraged by El-Sisi's remarks.
Greste's brother Andrew, who has just returned from Egypt, welcomed the president's comments as "heartening" in comments to reporters in Brisbane, according to AFP.
"I'm sure images of Peter in the cage in the court are not images Egypt really want distributed around the world," he told reporters. "And the publicity they're getting out of this I'm sure is not the publicity any country would want."
With El-Sisi saying he would not interfere in the country's judicial process, the brother made it clear however that he was not certain if the president's comments would bring a resolution.