Egypt's President says he is considering amnesty for a Canadian journalist and his Egyptian colleague who have spent more than 400 days behind bars in Cairo.
Mohamed Fahmy, the bureau chief for Al Jazeera's English network, was expected to be back in Canada by now after President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi issued a decree allowing the deportation of foreigners being held in Egyptian jails.
Mr. Fahmy is instead facing a retrial, along with Al Jazeera producer Baher Mohamed, on terror-related charges at a hearing that is scheduled to begin in a Cairo courtroom on Thursday.
The case of the Al Jazeera journalists, which is the focus of an international campaign for press freedom, has become a headache for Mr. el-Sissi, who would like to convince the Western world that he is a sensible leader dedicated to democracy and human rights.
In an interview this week with the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Mr. el-Sissi was asked whether he would consider a general amnesty for the two Al Jazeera journalists who remain behind bars after Australian reporter Peter Greste was deported on Feb. 1.
"Absolutely. To me, humanity means compassion and peace," replied Mr. el-Sissi. He told the magazine that the journalists would never have been jailed if he had been in office at the time of their arrest.
"I would have wanted no further problems and would have asked them to leave the country," said the Egyptian President, who was elected in May, more than four months after the journalists were taken into custody during a sweep of their bureau in a suite at Cairo's Marriott hotel.
"I never wished these problems on myself. They harm Egypt's reputation," he said.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called Mr. el-Sissi several times to lobby for the release of Mr. Greste.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also "has communicated with the [Egyptian] President on this case," said his spokesman, Jason MacDonald, in an e-mail. "I am not going to get into the specifics of the communication between the PM and the President, including the timing or details of that communication."
An Egyptian government official told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Harper's communication was by mail.
Mr. Fahmy's family is urging supporters to press Mr. Harper to place a direct call to Mr. el-Sissi asking for the release of Mr. Fahmy, who immigrated to Canada from Egypt as a teenager and became a citizen of both countries.
The journalist relinquished his Egyptian citizenship in the expectation that, if he did so, his deportation would quickly follow that of Mr. Greste.
But an Egyptian prosecutor dashed those hopes on Sunday by announcing that a retrial of Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohamed would start on Thursday.
Canada's opposition parties are urging Mr. Harper to call Mr. el-Sissi.
In a letter to Mr. Harper on Tuesday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair wrote: "Canada needs to send a strong message to the government of Egypt of the need to respect basic human rights, including freedom of the press."
Marc Garneau, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, spoke with the Egyptian Ambassador to Canada about Mr. Fahmy on Tuesday and said on Twitter that Mr. Harper must call Mr. el-Sissi.
And Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said this week it is Mr. Harper's responsibility to protect Canadians who are in Mr. Fahmy's situation.
The three Al Jazeera journalists were convicted last June of conspiring with the banned Muslim Brotherhood to spread false news. Mr. Greste and Mr. Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in jail while Mr. Mohamed was given 10 years.
A retrial was ordered at the beginning of January. Justice Anwar Gabry, the deputy head of Egypt's highest court of appeal, wrote in an analysis released this week that the original court rushed to judgment.
Justice Gabry cited a lack of evidence. He said the violence requirement for the terrorism charge was not met, and that the defendants were under physical and emotional pressure to confess.
With a report from Omar El Akkad