Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he’s seeking a resolution to the case of three Al Jazeera television journalists imprisoned for more than a year.
“We are very keen on sorting this out and getting it finished as soon as possible,” al-Sisi said in an interview with Bloomberg’s Tom Keene at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Thursday. “We are trying very hard to find a way out within the legal framework and respect the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.”
An Egyptian appeals court this month ordered the retrial of the journalists, who were detained in December 2013. Human rights organizations and activists have condemned their detention as evidence of repression of freedoms since the army, led by al-Sisi, toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 after widespread protests against his rule. Al-Sisi was elected as his successor in May.
“I wouldn’t have wished for any personnel from the media or journalism to be standing in a court in Egypt, but I was not in office at that time,” al-Sisi said. “Had it been I in office at the time, I would have just sent those reporters home, not detained any of them.”
He said it’s very important for the world to understand that Egypt is “trying very hard after four years of turbulence to regain the rule of law and to uphold the independence of the judiciary.”
As army chief and president, al-Sisi has presided over a crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, with hundreds of supporters killed and thousands more jailed. Activists who played a key role in the 2011 uprising, and who had opposed Morsi, have also been targeted. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the period after Morsi’s ouster saw “a use of violence that is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern political history.”
Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and head of the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said al-Sisi’s comments about the Jazeera journalists are “meant to give a face-lift for the government ahead of the investors conference, without reflecting a real political will to enhance the situation of human rights.”
“There are currently 60 journalists in jail; the worst record Egypt has reached in 35 years,” Eid said. “These arrests and verdicts against journalists send a clear message that only one voice is allowed, that is the voice of the government.”
The three Jazeera journalists — Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohamed — were charged with terrorism-related offenses. They were accused of supporting the Brotherhood, sullying Egypt’s image and posing a threat to its security. Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mohamed received 10 years.
Their detention came amid a broader dispute between Egypt and Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based. Qatar supported Morsi’s government after his election as Egypt’s first democratically chosen civilian president, and has denounced his overthrow.
Egypt is planning to organize a conference for investors in March as it seeks to shore up an economy that has struggled to recover from four years of political unrest.