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Published: Tuesday June 24, 2014 MYT 11:25:02 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 24, 2014 MYT 11:25:02 AM

Australia summons Egyptian diplomat to protest over journalist's jailing

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia summoned a senior Egyptian diplomat on Tuesday to protest against the sentencing of an Australian reporter, one of three Al Jazeera journalists jailed for seven years by an Egyptian judge in a verdict that left his family "shattered".

The three journalists, including Australian Peter Greste, all denied the charge of working with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Sentenced in a Cairo court on Monday, they have been held at Egypt's notorious Tora Prison for six months, with the case becoming a rallying point for rights groups and news organisations around the world.

A spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Bishop had called in the deputy Egyptian ambassador so that Australia could continue to "express their disappointment". She did not have further details about the meeting. The Egyptian ambassador to Australia is in Cairo.

Greste was sentenced along with Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy, Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English.

Cairo defended the journalists' convictions - for aiding a "terrorist organisation" - and rejected the widespread condemnation as "interference in its internal affairs".

Greste's parents told a news conference in Brisbane on Tuesday their son was not a criminal.

"This man, our son, Peter, is an award-winning journalist. He is not a criminal," said his father, Juris Greste.

"To us, it is not just affecting the Greste family. We put it to you that it is also a slap in the face and a kick in the groin to Australia, as well as all fair-minded people around the world," he said.

Despite the growing outcry, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott struck a cautious tone on Tuesday, somewhat softening his government's furious initial reaction.

"I do understand that once the court system has done its work, there are options for presidential acts - presidential clemency, presidential pardons and so on - and that's why I'm not in the business of being critical of the government as such," Abbott told reporters in Canberra. "What we don't want to do is engage in unhelpful megaphone diplomacy because that won't do Peter Greste any good, it won't do his two Al Jazeera colleagues any good," he said.

The verdict has caused outrage within Australia, with at least one senior politician going so far as to raise the possibility of levelling sanctions against Egypt government, something Abbott's government has so far ruled out.

Senator Christine Milne, the leader of the small opposition Greens Party, warned against putting faith in an Egyptian judicial system she said has already been "shown to be a joke".

"I think our best hope is for President (Abdel Fattah) al-Sisi to intervene and pardon the journalists concerned and let them leave the country but, in order for pressure to build on Egypt, I think we should consider sanctions," she said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Egypt's foreign minister on Monday to register his "serious displeasure" at what he described as the "chilling, draconian sentences".

The three men were detained in December and charged with helping "a terrorist group" - a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood - by broadcasting lies that harmed national security and supplying money, equipment and information.

The Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist group after the Egyptian army deposed elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July following mass protests against his rule. The Brotherhood says it is a peaceful organisation.

(Editing by Paul Tait)

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