Egypt frees Jazeera journalists pending retrial

An Egyptian court ordered the release of two jailed Al-Jazeera journalists Thursday pending retrial, after they spent more than 400 days in prison in a case that sparked worldwide outrage.

Mohamed Fahmy, who is Canadian and whose family hoped he would be deported, must pay 250,000 Egyptian pounds (US$33,000) bail.

His colleague, Egyptian Baher Mohamed, was freed without having to pay bail.

The two must appear in court again on Feb. 23.

Fahmy and Mohamed entered the packed courtroom in white prison uniforms, after Australian colleague Peter Greste was deported home earlier this month.

The three were accused of supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and originally jailed for between seven and 10 years each.

Greste congratulated his two colleagues after their release was announced.

“This is a huge step forward. Not time to declare it over, but at least you get to go home!” the Australian wrote on Twitter.

A message posted on Mohamed’s Twitter feed simply said: “I AM FREE”.

Heather Allan, head of newsgathering at Al-Jazeera English, said just minutes after the news of their release: “We are very grateful. This is a great, great day for us and we just hope that… the whole thing is thrown out.”

Fahmy’s fiancee Marwa Omara tearfully hugged those around her as the pair’s release was announced.

The case has been a major source of embarrassment for President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as he seeks to shore up international support following a widely condemned crackdown on the opposition.

Fahmy had renounced his Egyptian citizenship to benefit from a law that allows the deportation of foreign defendants and which led to Greste’s release.

On Thursday’s first session of their retrial, Fahmy was allowed out of the caged dock to address the judge.

“I didn’t ask to drop my [Egyptian] nationality,” he said, his arm in a blue sling from an accident he had suffered before his arrest.

“A security official visited me and asked I drop my citizenship because the state wanted to get this case done with, it had become a nightmare,” Fahmy said before pulling out a large Egyptian flag.

Greste was on the judge’s roll call of defendants at the start of the trial.

“He’s not here sir,” responded a police officer when the judge called out his name.

The three journalists had spent more than a year in jail before an appeals court ordered a retrial.

Egypt’s Court of Cassation ruled in January that the lower court “lacked evidence to support its ruling” in the original verdict.

The three employees of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English were arrested in December 2013 and charged with spreading false news about Egypt and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Their arrests and continued detentions sparked widespread condemnation and calls for their release led by Washington and the United Nations.

The journalists’ initial trial came against the backdrop of strained ties between Egypt and Qatar, which supported ousted president Mohamed Mursi.

The Islamist leader was toppled by then army chief Sissi in July 2013, before Sissi was himself elected president.

The journalists were among 20 defendants initially tried by the lower court.

Of the rest, 12 were Egyptians found guilty of belonging to a “terrorist organization”.

Two defendants were acquitted, while the other three — also foreigners — were convicted in absentia.

Sissi passed a law by decree last year allowing foreigners to be deported to their home countries to stand trial or serve out their sentences.

Shortly before the start of the retrial, Omara said she was disappointed that — unlike Greste — Fahmy had not yet benefited from the new law.

“We had assurances from the Canadian government and Egyptian officials that Mohamed was supposed to be out last Tuesday,” Omara told AFP.

“I quit my job and packed my bags.”

While Fahmy may still be deported, an acquittal is the only hope for Mohamed as he has no other nationality.

His wife Jihan Rashid said the family is “paying the price for being Egyptian”.

Sissi’s office has said the president will not consider a pardon before the courts have finished their work.