SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia on Monday said it was "appalled" at the jail term given to Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste by an Egyptian court, saying it undermined Cairo's claim to be transitioning to democracy.
"The Australian government is shocked at the verdict," said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of the seven-year sentence imposed on the Australian for aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood.
"We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it.
"It is hard to credit that the court in this case could have reached this conclusion," she added.
"The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case."
Greste's Al-Jazeera colleague, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, was also sentenced to seven years, while producer Baher Mohamed received two sentences - one for seven years and another for three years They were accused of "spreading false news".
The three were among 20 defendants in a trial that has triggered international outrage amid fears of growing media restrictions in Egypt.
The severe sentence came despite Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking to Egypt's new leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the weekend.
Mr Abbott said he had been encouraged about their conversation on Greste.
"I think he understands that this would be a PR coup for the new government if Peter Greste is not dealt with severely," Mr Abbott said earlier on Monday.
Ms Bishop said the verdict did nothing to support claims that the new administration was moving towards democracy.
"We understand Egypt has been through some very difficult times and a great deal of turmoil," she said.
"But this kind of verdict does nothing to support claims to be transitioning to democracy.
"The Australian government urges the Egyptian government to reflect on what message is being sent to the world."
Since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July last year, the authorities in Egypt have been incensed by the Qatari network's coverage of their deadly crackdown on his supporters.
They consider Al-Jazeera to be the voice of Qatar, and accuse Doha of backing Mursi's Brotherhood, while the emirate openly denounces the repression of the Islamist movement's supporters which has killed more than 1,400 people.
Ms Bishop said Canberra would “instigate contact at the highest levels of government” to try to find out whether any intervention was possible from the al-Sisi administration.
“I have spoken at length with Peter Greste’s parents. They are considering their legal options, including appeal options,” she added.
A spokeswoman for the Greste family said they were devastated by the news.
“I can’t see how they (the family) can continue after this,” Ms Heidi Ross told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“They will, of course, because they have to. We always knew it was possible but you just don’t think it could possibly happen, especially as there was no concrete evidence against Peter.
“Peter was a correspondent there on a relief posting – he had been there for two weeks, he didn’t speak Arabic. He was a correspondent... merely doing his job.”