Al Jazeera journalists
Al-Jazeera journalists (l. to r.) Mohammed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed stand behind bars at a court in Cairo May 15, 2014. Reuters

Calling it “a blow to democratic progress in Egypt,” the White House on Monday slammed the sentences handed down to three Al-Jazeera journalists accused of aiding a terrorist organization and producing fake news stories to destabilize the country.

“The United States strongly condemns the verdicts rendered against three Al-Jazeera journalists and 15 other defendants today in Egypt,” the White House press secretary’s office said in a statement. “The prosecution of journalists for reporting information that does not coincide with the government of Egypt’s narrative flouts the most basic standards of media freedom and represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt. As we have said many times before, democracy is about more than elections. True democracy requires thriving democratic institutions, including a vibrant free press that is empowered to hold the government accountable to the people.”

Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy received seven years in prison while colleague Baher Mohamed got 10 years. They were accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which was branded as a terrorist organization by Egypt’s military rulers, and fabricating stories about the situation in Egypt. The trial was described as a farce by media and human rights groups who followed the story.

The White House said Monday’s sentences were a continuation of other harsh proceedings in Egypt.

“Perhaps most disturbing is that this verdict comes as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance. These include the prosecution of peaceful protesters and critics of the government, and a series of summary death sentences in trials that fail to achieve even a semblance of due process,” the White House said.

Washington urged Cairo to pardon the journalists or commute their sentences “so they can be released immediately.”

“We strongly urge President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, in the spirit of his pledge to review all human rights legislation, to provide the protections for free expression and assembly as well as the fair trial safeguards that are required by Egypt’s international obligations,” the White House continued. “The United States will continue to stand with the Egyptian people as they seek to realize the rights for which they have long struggled.”