Dashing the hopes of his family, Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy will remain in an Egyptian jail after his name and those of his Al Jazeera colleagues were absent from a list of presidential pardons issued to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Sunday.
Advocates for Mr. Fahmy and his two colleagues had argued that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should use his powers to release the journalists, whose prosecution and conviction has been much criticized internationally.
Mr. Fahmy’s family members had been warned by lawyers that a pardon was a long shot, and the prospect wasn’t widely discussed in the Egyptian press.
“Unfortunately it’s not on the table,” Mr. Fahmy’s brother, Adel, said in an interview late Sunday. “We knew it was extremely unlikely especially in cases of this magnitude and this nature.”
The news came after the judge responsible for the journalists’ convictions released a statement of reasons for the verdict, a month after he sentenced the three men to jail terms.
“The devil encouraged them to use journalism and direct it toward actions against this nation,” the judge wrote on Wednesday.
Mr. Fahmy and Australian correspondent Peter Greste received seven-year sentences, while Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed picked up an extra three years for possession of a spent bullet casing, apparently collected from a protest.
The journalists were caught up in a geopolitical faceoff between Egypt’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood administration and the tiny Gulf kingdom of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera and backs the Muslim Brotherhood.
As the journalists’ families, backed by diplomats and an international campaign, seek the release of the men, the three have also found that their fate has become tangled with thorny domestic issues: the prestige of Egypt’s powerful judiciary and the nation’s ability to resist foreign influence.
The Brotherhood ruled Egypt until last July when it was ousted by the military and it was designated a terrorist organization on Dec. 24. Five days later, the three journalists were arrested after a raid on their studio.
The three worked for Al Jazeera English, but the reporting of the network’s Arabic service had tended to back the deposed Brotherhood and was one of the few outlets to challenge the military-backed government’s narrative for a mass audience.
During the trial, the prosecution’s case was shoddy and frequently bizarre. In court, several wildly irrelevant video clips were shown as evidence, many not produced by Al Jazeera – including a pop video, footage of livestock and a press conference in Kenya.
The case has become a diplomatic thorn in Egypt’s side, as Mr. el-Sissi, the recently inaugurated president, seeks to persuade the world that a year after he deposed Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, his administration respects human rights and press freedoms.
Mr. el-Sissi has refused to intervene to free the journalists, whether by presidential pardon or unofficial pressure behind the scenes.
Among the criticisms that led to the downfall of Mr. Morsi was the charge of undermining and politicizing the judiciary. Mr. Morsi appointed an Islamist Prosecutor-General and declared himself immune from judicial oversight for a period.
The judges, for their part, disbanded the Brotherhood-dominated parliament on procedural grounds.
Brotherhood members were also accused of acting as agents for a foreign conspiracy involving Qatar and Hamas.
The accusations against Mr. Fahmy and his colleagues might have been wild, but in the public mind they stuck. In that context, for Mr. el-Sissi to be seen to interfere with judicial independence at the behest of an international campaign – and on behalf of Al Jazeera journalists, at that – would be politically dangerous.
Yet, in a July 6 meeting with newspaper editors, Mr. el-Sissi acknowledged the damage the case had done to Egypt’s reputation.
“The verdict issued against a number of journalists had very negative consequences, and we had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I wished they were deported immediately after their arrest instead of being put on trial.”
With a report from Kate Hammer in Toronto