Al-Jazeera English producer Baher Mohamed, center left, bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, center, and correspondent Peter Greste, second right, appear in court along with several other defendants during their trial on terror charges, in Cairo, Egypt, (3/31). AP/Heba Elkholy, El Shorouk
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi pardoned and released two Al-Jazeera English journalists Wednesday, ending a case that was widely condemned by human rights groups and had raised questions about Egypt’s commitment to democracy and free speech.
The move to free Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian national Baher Mohammed came days before el-Sissi’s appearance at the U.N. General Assembly, as well as on the eve of a major holiday in Islam, Eid al-Adha.
Also receiving presidential pardons were 100 people, including dozens of human rights activists. Most of them were convicted and imprisoned for breaking a disputed law enacted in 2013 that prohibits unapproved demonstrations. The measure has almost entirely ended street activism in Egypt.
Fahmy and Mohammed were arrested in December 2013 and sentenced to three years in prison in a retrial last month for airing what a court described as “false news” and coverage biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the 2013 military overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi, hundreds of his supporters have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands were detained, including almost the entire leadership of his group, the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The two journalists were released hours after the pardon was announced, and dropped off by police in a Cairo suburb.
“We have not digested the fact that we are free, we don’t have to worry about anything else,” said Fahmy, who joined Al-Jazeera just months before his arrest. “Our families have suffered so much since the beginning of this trial, and we’re very happy that el-Sissi took this action and released us.”
Fahmy’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, said she was “delighted” by the pardon.
“This is a historic day in Egypt where the government has finally corrected a longstanding injustice,” she said in a statement.
Al-Jazeera also said it was happy for its employees.
“It is hard to celebrate, though, as this whole episode should not have happened in the first place,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
The long-running trial of the Al-Jazeera staff was entangled from the start with the wider political enmity between Egypt and the super-rich Gulf state of Qatar, where the broadcaster is based, following Morsi’s ouster. Egypt maintains that Qatar is fueling unrest in Egypt through its support to Islamists, including the Brotherhood.
Egypt’s official MENA news agency said a third person from the Al-Jazeera case — which included other defendants along with Australian journalist Peter Greste — was also pardoned but was not identified by name.
Greste said his conviction still stood and there was ambiguity around whether it would remain.
“It does still stand. It’s a relatively minor thing compared to what we really wanted to do and that’s to make sure that Fahmy and Baher were freed and that their ordeal, at least after almost two years of constant struggle and suffering, is really genuinely over,” Greste told Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday in Canberra, Australia.
Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed were charged with being part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organization, and airing falsified video intended to damage national security.
They initially were convicted June 23, 2014, with Greste and Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years for also being found with a spent bullet casing. That ruling was later overturned on appeal, and a retrial ended with last month’s convictions.
Greste was deported earlier this year.