CAIRO (Reuters) - President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree on Wednesday allowing him to repatriate foreign prisoners in Egypt, state media said, a move that could enable the release of an Al Jazeera journalist now serving a seven-year jail term.
Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, was sentenced in June along with Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, all from the Qatar-based television network.
They were detained in December and convicted six months later of spreading lies to help a “terrorist organisation” - an allusion to the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed after the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in mid-2013.
Al Jazeera has said that the accusations against the three journalists are absurd. Western governments and human rights groups have condemned the case, with the United Nations questioning Egypt’s reputation and the independence of its judiciary.
“The president issued a law on Wednesday allowing (him) to agree to surrender and transport non-Egyptian convicts and suspects to their countries to be tried or have their punishment implemented,” the official news agency MENA said.
“This decision comes in the framework of upholding the nation’s interests and preserving Egypt’s international image...,” MENA quoted presidential spokesman Alaa Yousef as saying.
The report did not mention the Al Jazeera journalists, but there are few other criminal cases involving foreigners in Egypt and none that have received as much international attention.
Sisi said in July that he wished the imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists had been deported and not put on trial.
He initially reacted to their sentencing by saying he would not interfere in court verdicts, but his subsequent comments suggested he might use his presidential power to pardon the journalists, who have an appeals hearing set for Jan. 1.
The Gulf state of Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, supports the Brotherhood. Its relations with Egypt have been strained since Mursi’s ouster following mass protests against his troubled one-year rule.
Sisi proceeded to crack down hard on Mursi’s supporters in a campaign that has expanded to include secular and liberal activists, including some of the leading members of the 2011 popular uprising that ousted veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Reporting by Mostafa Hashem; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich