CAIRO Egypt summoned the British ambassador to reject as "unacceptable interference" comments he made on an Egyptian court's decision to hand down prison sentences for three Al Jazeera journalists, state media said on Sunday.
After the court on Saturday sentenced the journalists to three years imprisonment for operating without a license, British Ambassador John Casson said he was shocked and concerned in the wake of the decision.
The case has stoked an international outcry and raised questions over Egypt's stated commitment to democracy nearly five years after an uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. A security crackdown since 2013 has stifled most public dissent.
"Britain actively supports stability in Egypt," Casson wrote on Facebook. "But the question today is whether this will be a fragile and temporary stability on the basis of suspending freedoms of media and expression and depriving individuals of their rights in the Egyptian constitution."
Egypt's foreign ministry expressed its "strong objection" to Casson's comments, describing them as an "unacceptable interference" in Egypt's judiciary, state news agency MENA said.
The British embassy said Casson would transmit the concerns of the foreign ministry to ministers in London.
The verdict, in a retrial, was issued against Mohamed Fahmy, a naturalized Canadian who has given up his Egyptian citizenship, Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Peter Greste, an Australian who was deported in February. It will be appealed.
Rights advocates say their arrest was part of a crackdown on free speech waged since the army overthrew President Mohamed Mursi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, in July 2013 following mass unrest over his rule.
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry expressed its "complete rejection" of any statements from abroad on the case of the Al Jazeera journalists, dubbed the "Marriott cell" by local media because they operated from a hotel belonging to that chain.
It described such comments as an unacceptable interference in Egypt's judiciary, adding that thousands of journalists were free to work in Egypt.
The United States is "deeply disappointed" by the verdict, which "undermines the very freedom of expression necessary for stability and development", said the State Department.
The three men were originally sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison on charges that included spreading lies to help a terrorist organization, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the military toppled from power two years ago.
The three defendants denied all charges, calling them absurd. Three other Egyptians, all students, also received three-year sentences for the same charges.
In the original case, two Britons, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, were sentenced in absentia to 10 years for "falsifying news" when they worked for Al Jazeera in Egypt.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)