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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Tuesday rejected calls from the United States and other Western governments that he pardon or commute the sentences of three Al-Jazeera journalists who were handed heavy prison terms a day earlier in a court ruling that raised international outrage.
El-Sissi's tough stance reflected an image the former army chief has sought to project to the Egyptian public — one of a strong leader defying foreign pressure on Egypt. Nationalist media bolstered that narrative Tuesday, praising the verdicts as a sign of the judiciary standing up to outside interference.
In a nationally televised speech to graduating military cadets, el-Sissi said he would not interfere in court rulings or the judicial process. Legal experts said that doesn't rule out a pardon later after any appeals are exhausted — a process that could take months, with the three journalists likely to remain in prison for the duration.
Whether or not a pardon could eventually be in the cards, el-Sissi 's priority appeared to be to show he would not be pushed.
The case is deeply tied in politics. Egypt appears determined to punish the Al-Jazeera network, which it accuses of being a mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president that el-Sissi ousted last summer.
By extension, Egypt is also targeting the Gulf nation of Qatar, which was a close ally of Morsi and owns Al-Jazeera. Also, el-Sissi's powerful Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are strongly opposed to both the Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. Those allies have given Egypt billions of dollars in aid since Morsi's ouster.
The verdict also sends a message to the media against covering Islamists and dissenting voices amid the fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood.
The three journalists — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed — contended throughout their trial that they were pawns in the Egypt-Qatar enmity. They were charged with helping the Brotherhood, which Egypt's government has declared a terrorist group, and with falsifying their coverage of protests by Morsi supporters in order to damage Egypt's security.
A Cairo criminal court on Monday sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years.
Rights groups described their 5-month trial as a sham, with no evidence presented to back the charges. 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 their immediate release.