Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi said Sunday that he "wished" three jailed Al Jazeera reporters had not been put on trial, acknowledging for the first time that the case had been damaging to the country's image.
Egyptian-Canadian producer Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australia's Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail after they were convicted of "aiding a terrorist group" and "falsifying news" by a Cairo court last month.
"The sentencing of several journalists had very negative effects, and we had nothing to do with it," Sisi was quoted as saying by the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. "I wish they were deported after their arrest instead of being put on trial."
Sisi had previously refused to comment on the matter and said he would not interfere in court verdicts.
The three journalists, who were arrested in December, were denied bail throughout a five-month trial.
The verdict caused global outrage. The U.S. government called it "draconian," and Human Rights Watch described it as the latest step in Egypt's "unrelenting assault on free expression."
"Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt's judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi," Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division, said of the verdicts.
The sentences came amid tensions in Egypt's relationship with Qatar, the Persian Gulf state that owns the Al Jazeera network and strongly condemned the overthrow of Egypt's former president, Mohamed Morsi, at the hands of the Sisi-led army last summer.
Sisi met with members of the media Sunday to try to justify a number of recent austerity measures taken by his administration, including its decision to raise fuel prices by more than 70%.
Decreasing energy subsidies is "an important step" that has been delayed for 50 years, Sisi said. The move was the only way to save Egypt from "drowning in debt," he said.
Last week, Sisi approved a revised state budget that aims to reduce the country's deficit to 10%, from 12%. The amended budget comes as three years of political turmoil have severely damaged the Egyptian economy.