Egyptian court orders Al-Jazeera journalists freed on bail
CAIRO (AP) A court ordered two Al-Jazeera journalists freed on bail Thursday after more than a year in detention on terrorism charges in a case that human rights groups have called a sham.
If authorities aim to eventually exonerate Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed, their strategy for doing so remains murky and slow as they apparently seek a face-saving way out of a legal process that has drawn international criticism of Egyptian justice.
A solution was found for a third Al-Jazeera defendant, Australian Peter Greste, when he was deported two weeks ago to his great relief. But Thursday's decision indicated the court was moving ahead with a retrial of Fahmy and Mohammed.
The decision to release Fahmy and Mohammed brought tears of joy and relief by their relatives in the Cairo courtroom.
Al-Jazeera called the decision "a small step in the right direction" but said the court should dismiss "this absurd case" and release both journalists unconditionally." The trial's next session is set for Feb. 23.
The journalists, who worked for Al-Jazeera's English-language channel, were arrested in December 2013 and accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was branded a terrorist organization after the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi earlier that year. Egypt has been cracking down heavily on Morsi supporters, and the journalists were accused of being mouthpieces for the Brotherhood and falsifying footage to suggest that Egypt faces civil war. They rejected the charges against them, saying they were simply reporting the news.
The journalists were convicted by a lower court on terrorism-related charges and sentenced to at least seven years in prison. The Court of Cassation, in ordering a retrial, said their conviction was based on "flawed evidence" and that the trial was marred by violations of the defendants' rights, according to details of its ruling made public this week.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had rejected calls from the United States and other Western governments to pardon or commute the sentences. In July, he acknowledged that the heavy sentences had a "very negative" impact on his country's reputation and that he wished they had never been put on trial.
Egyptian officials have signaled they want to resolve the case and end the criticism ahead of a major economic conference next month to drum up international investment. Egypt's ties with Qatar have thawed, and Al-Jazeera's Egyptian affiliate was shut down.
But officials have never said outright that the controversy would be worked out, insisting on the independence of the courts and keeping Fahmy and Mohammed's fate murky.
Several outcomes are possible in the retrial. It could eventually throw out the case, acquit them, convict them but sentence them to time served, or impose more jail time, with the possibility of a pardon from el-Sissi.
The journalists and their families say they were caught in the bitter feud between Egypt and Qatar, the Gulf nation that owns Al-Jazeera and is the main backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Greste was deported under a hastily drawn up law allowing el-Sissi to deport foreigners who are on trial or have been convicted. Fahmy has applied for deportation under the same law, but the law itself is confusing and unclear. One defense lawyer, Khaled Abou Bakr, noted that Greste remains listed as a defendant in the case even after his deportation.
In asking to be deported like Greste, Fahmy said security officials had pushed him into giving up his Egyptian citizenship so he could be sent to Canada, where he also has citizenship.
"I didn't ask to give up my Egyptian citizenship. I was asked to do so," Fahmy said in the courtroom, wearing a sling on a shoulder that has been injured since before his arrest and only worsened in detention. He said security officials had asked him to do so because the case had become a "nightmare" for Egypt.
Fahmy said he had been told by Canadian officials that his deportation was imminent, and that he and his fianc e had packed their luggage and booked tickets.
His colleague, Mohammed, has only Egyptian citizenship, and thus deportation is not an option. His fate is fully dependent on the verdict in the retrial or a possible pardon.
Fahmy's fiancee, Marwa Omara, broke down in tears after the defendants were ordered freed, and cried: "Long live justice."
"I am very happy. It is a rebirth for me and Mohamed," she said. She added that they will plan their long delayed wedding now that Fahmy is to be released.
Fahmy's bail was set at $33,000, and his mother, Wafaa Bassiouni, said the family was trying to post it before the end of business Thursday. She said it was unclear if her son will be able to leave the country as he hopes.
"We are happy the gloom has now lifted," she told The Associated Press. "It is an opening of hope. ... But we hope for acquittal, not just release. Nothing he has done deserves those 14 months in prison."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government was in touch with officials in Egypt "at all levels, including on my level," and was continuing to press for Fahmy's freedom.
"We do remain optimistic that this case will be resolved," Harper said.
Mohammed and 11 other defendants mostly students accused of being Brotherhood members were ordered released without bail.
His wife, Jehane Rashed, also wept with relief. "I am happy, but my happiness is incomplete until he gets acquitted." Rashed gave birth to a child while Mohammed was in detention.
From Australia, Greste sent his best wishes to his colleagues in a tweet before Thursday's session, saying it was strange to watch them in court and adding that "my heart is in the cage with them."
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.