Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suggested on Thursday he was considering pardoning journalists of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station jailed in his country for nearly a year on charges of aiding a “terrorist organisation”.
Human rights groups and Western governments have condemned the trial of the journalists and the United Nations questioned Egypt’s judicial independence. The affair has contributed to tensions between Egypt and Qatar.
The three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced in June to between seven and 10 years in jail on charges including spreading lies to help a “terrorist organisation”, an allusion to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“Let us say that this matter is being discussed to solve the issue,” Sisi said in an interview with France 24 when asked if he could pardon the journalists.
Asked if a decision might be made soon, he said: “If we find this appropriate for the national security of Egypt, we will do it.”
The family of one of the journalists, Australian Peter Greste, on Friday greeted the news cautiously.
“We’re always pleased and we’re always hopeful this kind of turn of events would take place, however we have had rumours either explicit or implied of this kind before,” Greste’s father, Juris Greste, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“We have built up hope but in fact it hasn’t led anywhere.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop welcomed the possibility of an early release and said she would take up the issue with Egypt’s representative at the United Nations.
Relations between Egypt and Qatar have been strained since mid-2013 when then-army chief Sisi ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and cracked down hard on his Muslim Brotherhood, arresting thousands of supporters.
But tensions have showed signs of easing recently. Qatar expelled prominent Brotherhood leaders in September and Egypt on Wednesday welcomed an agreement to end a dispute amongst Gulf Arab states over Qatar’s support for the Islamist group.
Sisi has previously refused to intervene in the case, suggesting that doing so would undermine judicial independence. But he said in July he wished the journalists had been deported and not tried, a view he reaffirmed on Thursday.
Sisi could utilise a decree he issued last week allowing him to repatriate foreign prisoners and raising the prospect that Greste and possibly Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy could be deported to face trial or complete their sentences at home.
The third Al Jazeera journalist behind bars, Baher Mohamed, is Egyptian, so would not be expected to benefit.
Al Jazeera has called the accusations against its three journalists absurd. “The Egyptian authorities have it in their power to release our journalists. World opinion expects this to happen speedily, and for all three to be freed,” a spokesman for the network said in an emailed statement.