An expert on international law says the sentence handed to Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste is “extreme” but warns that the Australian government must be measured in its diplomatic response.
Professor Don Rothwell from the Australian National University says the global attention given to the case may allow the government to “exercise much greater leverage at a political level” in efforts to secure Greste’s release.
The penalties imposed on the Australian journalist and his Al Jazeera colleagues shocked Greste’s family and attracted condemnation across the world, with the US calling for the Egyptian president to intervene and commute the sentences.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Tuesday he was bewildered by the decision and confirmed Egypt’s deputy ambassador would be summoned to discuss the matter.
Egypt’s ambassador is currently in Cairo.
Mr Abbott said his government would talk “calmly, patiently and reasonably” with the Egyptian government.
The Australian Greens called on Mr Abbott to consider all diplomatic options regardless of any avenues of appeal being followed by the Greste legal team.
“All diplomatic options, including sanctions, should be on the table,” Senator Christine Milne said.
But Prof Rothwell warned that such a response could be counterproductive.
“This is a decision by a trial judge; there will be appeal options, there will be other options for possible intervention such as a clemency appeal that could be directed to the president,” he told AAP.
“Any extreme response such as expelling the ambassador would be quite detrimental to that type of approach.”
Prof Rothwell said it was also essential that Australia maintain respect for the integrity of the Egyptian legal system.
“At first blush, the decision seems to be fairly extreme, with a very severe jail sentence having been imposed as a result of a trial which had fairly significant political dimensions associated with it.”
“To that end, the connection between Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood I think cannot be ignored in terms of how this has been dealt with.”
Prof Rothwell says the government has been doing all it could “within the boundaries and parameters of what it can do consistent with diplomatic practice”.
“There’s a capacity here to exercise much greater leverage at a political level across a number of like-minded governments than what we see in other cases.
“This case is obviously on the radar of the Americans and that adds a particularly different dimension to this case compared with other cases involving Australians detained overseas.”
Prof Rothwell says suggestions that a prisoner exchange deal might be able to worked out if other avenues of appeal fail are “ambitious” because such arrangements are “exceptionally difficult to negotiate”.
“The most recent example of where there’s been discussion about prisoner exchange is in the case of Stern Hu, the Australian/Chinese national being detained in China. There’s been no progress at all on such a prisoner transfer agreement.”