Amid bids to pardon journalists, Sisi changes head of appeal courts
Al-Jazeera news channel's Australian journalist Peter Greste inside the defendants cage during his trial. AFP/Khaled Desouki

CAIRO: President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is constitutionally entitled to pardon defendants only after they are handed a final sentence, head of Cairo Appeal Court Ahmed al-Khatib told Youm7 Tuesday.

“The president should consult the Cabinet to ensure that this right is not abused. This [right] does not infringe on the independence of the judiciary because it is enshrined in the country’s constitution,” Khatib said.

Family of imprisoned Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste may seek a pardon from Sisi, fearing a legal appeal may be lengthy, they said in a press conference Tuesday.

Al Jazeera journalists from the Marriot Cell case were detained since December and Cairo Criminal Court sentenced on Monday 20 defendants, including Greste, to seven to ten years in prison for publishing false news on Qatari-owned Al Jazeera and aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi however said in a speech at the Military Academy graduation ceremony Tuesday that he called Minister of Justice Mahfouz Saber and told him, “We will not intervene in the affairs of the judiciary because it is independent. If we earnestly seek a state of institutions, we must respect judicial rulings.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke to their Egyptian counterparts a few days before the court issued the verdict, in an attempt to “lobby” Egypt for Greste’s release.

“[We] firmly believe that the release of the journalists – by acquittal, presidential pardon, or some other act of clemency – will send a positive message to Egypt and the world. It will demonstrate the confidence and stability of the government as well as an appreciation of the important role of journalism,” dozens of foreign correspondents based in Cairo wrote in a letter to Sisi Sunday.

The foreign defendants in the case are Greste, Britons Dominic Kane and Sue Turton and Dutch Rena Netjes. Al-Jazeera’s Greste, the only foreigner in Egyptian custody, was sentenced to seven years, while the three others were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.

Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy were also sentenced to seven years, but Baher was sentenced to another three years, 10 years in total, for allegedly possessing unlicensed firearms.

“The Egyptian court system does work at arm’s length from the government, but I do understand that once the court system has done its work, then there are options for presidential acts, presidential clemency, presidential pardons, and so on,” DPA quoted Abbott as saying Tuesday.

“We are going to register a formal diplomatic-level request with the new President of Egypt [Sisi] to see if he can intervene in the proceedings at this stage,” The Australian news website quoted Bishop as telling ABC Radio Tuesday.

“We call on the Egyptian government to pardon these individuals or commute their sentences so that they can be released immediately and to grant clemency for all politically motivated sentences,” the White House said in a Monday statement.

In recent months, Egyptian courts have acquitted non-Islamist detainees in the appeal process and sometimes in first-degree rulings.

Cairo’s Azbakiya Misdemeanor Court of Appeals acquitted Monday 64 protesters from charges of rioting on the third anniversary of the January 25 Revolution. A first-degree court sentenced them to two years in prison.

Maadi Misdemeanor Court of Appeals acquitted Saturday 20 defendants arrested on Jan. 25, twelve of them were sentenced to two years in prison and the rest were only fined. On June 16, Dokki Misdemeanor Court acquitted 48 protesters on Jan. 25 from illegal protesting, possessing firearms, and other charges.

Undersecretary of the Judges Club Abdullah Fathy told Tahrir TV Monday that it is studying a suitable position to respond to foreign interference in the judiciary.

“You do not permit anyone to comment on the rulings of your judiciary and therefore you may not criticize Egyptian rulings or interfere in our internal affairs,” Fathy said, addressing foreign countries who criticized Monday’s ruling.

“Especially since you criticize without recognition of the judicial texts and rulings and the fact that Egyptian judiciary allows challenges against its own rulings,” Fathy added.

Judges Club treasurer Mohamed Saleh told Al-Bawabh News that Sisi’s statement emphasizes respect and independence of the judiciary, reflecting that Egypt is back on the track on the rule of law.

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