CAIRO — Egypt's Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador in Cairo on Sunday to protest comments he made after a judge sentenced three Al-Jazeera English journalists to three years prison each for reporting "false news."
The ministry said in a statement that John Casson's comments were "unacceptable interference" in the country's judiciary, and "incompatible with diplomatic norms and practices." In a post on Twitter, spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said Egypt "rejects any foreign criticism of judicial verdicts."
The court sentenced the Canadian Mohammed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed on Saturday, reigniting international criticism over the long-running case and highlighting authorities' crackdown on free speech.
Speaking to television cameras in Arabic after the verdict, Casson said he was "shocked and concerned by the sentences," in a case that is of "profound interest to Egyptians because it has become a symbol of the basis for stability in the new Egypt."
"I am concerned that today's ruling will undermine confidence in the basis of Egypt's stability, both in Egypt and abroad," he said.
Several other foreign diplomats at the trial also condemned the verdict, but Casson may have been the only one to speak in Arabic to domestic television stations. The United States, the European Union, the United Nations and human rights advocacy groups and press freedom organizations also sharply criticized it.
Casson's comments were posted on the British Embassy's Facebook page and met with a wave of negative reaction in Arabic and English. He also posted similar comments on Twitter, where he is one of the most widely-followed Western diplomats in Egypt, with nearly 28,000 followers.
The British Embassy said Casson met Hisham Seif al-Din, chief of staff to Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, at the ministry's request on Sunday.
"Ambassador Casson explained the UK position on yesterday's court ruling set out in statements in London and Cairo yesterday," it said in a statement, adding that he would transmit the Egyptian side's concerns to government ministers in London.
The trial entangled the journalists' work in the wider political conflict between Egypt and Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, following the Egyptian army's 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Evidence presented at the trial ventured into the absurd, including music videos and footage of animals, which defence lawyers and even the judge dismissed as irrelevant. Third party observers say no evidence proved the charges, and critics described the case as politically motivated.
Besides the "false news" charge, Judge Hassan Farid said in his ruling that he sentenced the men because they had not registered with the country's journalist syndicate, brought in equipment without security officials' approval and used central Cairo's Marriott hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.
The three are now seeking a pardon from President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who has personally expressed regret over the long-running trial and the damage it has done to Egypt's international reputation. If a pardon is not granted, they will appeal once the full verdict is released in the next 30 days.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who represented Fahmy on Saturday, said she and Canadian Ambassador Troy Lulashnyk would be meeting with Egyptian officials to press for a presidential pardon.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other members of his government have called for Fahmy's immediate release and have said they'll continue diplomatic efforts to secure his freedom.
Greste was deported to Australia in February and sentenced Saturday in absentia.
The case began in December 2013, when Egyptian security forces raided the hotel suite used by Al-Jazeera at the time to report from Egypt. Authorities arrested Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed, later charging them with allegedly being part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organization, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.
The three were convicted on June 23, 2014, with Greste and Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years for being found with a spent bullet casing. That ruling was later overturned on appeal by Egypt's Court of Cassation, which said the initial proceedings were marred by violations of the defendants' rights, but a retrial was ordered.
Two other British journalists for Al-Jazeera were also sentenced to 10 years in that original trial but managed to leave the country beforehand and could not file an appeal. Casson urged the government to take "urgent steps" to resolve their position.
The arrests came in the wake of the military's ouster that summer of the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, after mass protests against his rule. Since then, Egypt has cracked down on his supporters, and accused the three journalists of being Brotherhood mouthpieces. Al-Jazeera and the journalists have denied the allegations.
At the time of the arrests, Qatar and Egypt were at odds over Doha's support of Islamist groups and the Brotherhood. In the time since, Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, has expelled some Brotherhood members and made overtures toward easing tensions with Egypt, though the Qatari government continues to support some Islamists in the region.
Brian Rohan, The Associated Press