The family of an Egyptian-Canadian journalist imprisoned in Cairo voiced cautious optimism Monday at an apparent expression of regret from Egypt’s president over Mohamed Fahmy’s case.
Fahmy was recently found guilty on terrorism-related charges along with two Al-Jazeera English colleagues in a trial denounced as a sham by a number of international observers.
The 40-year-old was sentenced to seven years in prison along with Australian Peter Greste, while another co-worker, Egyptian Baher Mohamed, was sentenced to 10 years behind bars.
Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, had initially taken a tough stance on the controversial case, saying he would not interfere in court rulings or the judicial process.
But in a surprising new twist, el-Sissi told editors of certain Egyptian media outlets on Sunday that the heavy sentences in the case have had a “very negative” impact on his country’s reputation.
“The verdict issued against a number of journalists had very negative consequences; and we had nothing to do with it,” el-Sissi said, suggesting the ruling was an entirely legal matter and not politically motivated.
“I wished they were deported immediately after their arrest instead of being put on trial.”
Observers have suggested the case is a reflection of the tension between Egypt and Qatar, the Gulf state which owns the satellite broadcaster Fahmy and his colleagues worked for.
Qatar was a supporter of Egypt’s former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood group. After Morsi’s ouster last year, many of the group’s leaders moved to Qatar to avoid an intense government crackdown that landed thousands in jail.
El-Sissi stopped short of indicating whether he will issue a clemency.
Fahmy’s family said they didn’t want to read too much into el-Sissi’s comments but admitted the president’s words had sparked a glimmer of hope.
“We think it’s a bit too late but it is a good indication. And he still has time to make it right by issuing a pardon,” Fahmy’s brother, Sherif Fahmy, told The Canadian Press.
“We just don’t want to put our hopes up again because when we did that last time it ended up in a heart-breaking scene. So I don’t know, it might be a good indication and it might be just a kind of propaganda.”
Mohamed Fahmy’s family is working on taking the case to an appeal court, pursuing a presidential pardon and has been hoping international pressure might result in an exceptional overturning of the conviction.
The timing of el-Sissi’s comments could be seen as significant, Fahmy’s brother noted.
An upcoming feast in the last week of July which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan typically sees the announcement of presidential pardons in Egypt, he explained.
“The protocol in Egypt is that the president issues a pardon at the beginning of this feast, so there’s a little bit of hope that he might, after what he said, issue a pardon,” Fahmy’s brother said. “(The comments) might be a hint, but again, we don’t want to put our hopes up.”
Fahmy — whose family moved to Canada in 1991 — lived in Montreal and Vancouver for years before eventually moving abroad for work, which included covering stories for the New York Times and CNN.
He was working in Cairo as a bureau chief for Al-Jazeera English when he and his two colleagues were arrested on Dec. 29.
The trio were accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s current government has declared a terrorist group. They were also charged with fabricating footage to undermine Egypt’s national security.
The journalists repeatedly denied all the allegations against them and contended they were just doing their jobs.
The ruling in the case was decried by human rights groups and political leaders from the United States, Britain and Australia.
While not using language as strong as some of his counterparts, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada had “deep concerns” about the case which were expressed to the Egyptian government. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird noted that “bullhorn diplomacy” won’t win Fahmy’s release.
For now, Fahmy is being held under heavy guard in a Cairo hospital where he was admitted Saturday for treatment for an arm which was fractured shortly before his arrest.
His family has long been concerned the injury wasn’t being properly treated in prison and pushed for Fahmy to be seen in a hospital. He is currently undergoing tests and will have surgery at a date determined by his doctors.
“His hopes are up now knowing that he will be undergoing the surgery and the hope that his arm is going to return back to normal,” Fahmy’s brother said. “The fact that he is able to have the basic needs to living, like a bed and an individual bathroom and some privacy, this also boosted his morale.”