Egypt’s top court on Thursday ordered a retrial of three Al-Jazeera reporters whose imprisonment on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood triggered global outrage, but kept them in custody pending a new hearing.
Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed of the broadcaster’s English service were detained in December 2013 for spreading false information.
Greste and Fahmy each got seven years, and Mohamed was jailed for 10.
“The Court of Cassation has accepted their appeal and ordered a retrial,” Greste’s defence lawyer Amr Al-Deeb said after a hearing lasting just 30 minutes.
Hopes for the journalists’ release have grown following a thaw in relations between Cairo and Qatar, where their employer is based.
Both the defence and the prosecution had requested a retrial.
“I know that we should be happy for accepting the appeal, but I was hoping for my brother to be released,” Fahmy’s brother Adel told reporters.
“I hope the reconciliation efforts between Egypt and Qatar continue for the sake of my brother and his colleagues … who are paying the price of a political crisis.”
After the conviction was overruled by the court of cassation on Thursday, Al-Jazeera spokesperson Osama Saeed said, “Baher, Peter and Mohammed have been unjustly in jail for over a year now. The Egyptian authorities have a simple choice – free these men quickly, or continue to string this out, all the while continuing this injustice and harming the image of their own country in the eyes of the world. They should choose the former.”
The Al-Jazeera reporters, who authorities say lacked proper accreditation, were sentenced in June on charges of spreading false information aiding the Muslim Brotherhood after the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The Brotherhood, which saw electoral success after the ouster of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has since been declared a “terrorist organisation” in Egypt.
Greste’s parents told Australia’s ABC ahead of the hearing that they had “confidence in the integrity of the Egyptian appeals system”.
‘Settling political scores’
The reporters were arrested when Egypt and Qatar were at loggerheads after Morsi was removed by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president, following mass protests against his one-year rule.
“Their arrest was a settling of political scores between Egypt and Qatar,” Fahmy’s lawyer Negad al-Borai said.
Ties worsened when Qatar, a key backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, repeatedly denounced Morsi’s overthrow, prompting Cairo to accuse Al-Jazeera of biased coverage.
At least 1 400 people have died in the crackdown on Islamist supporters, most of them in August 2013 when police broke up two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo.
The diplomatic row now appears to be ending following mediation by Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia, a key Sisi backer.
On December 20, Cairo told a Qatari envoy it was ready for a “new era” in relations with Doha, as the emirate offered its “full support” to Sisi.
Two days later, Al-Jazeera announced the surprise closure of its Egyptian channel, which had consistently criticised Cairo since Morsi’s ouster.
“It is quite likely the final result will be the release of the journalists. How and when that happens is another issue,” H.A. Hellyer of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington told AFP ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
Sisi himself has said he would have preferred the journalists to have been deported rather than tried.
In November, he issued a decree allowing him to deport foreigners sentenced to prison or on trial.
The court also ordered a retrial for codefendants, including four Egyptians, in the case, who were jailed for seven years on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation and for “damaging the image of Egypt”.
Eleven other defendants, tried in absentia, including one Dutch and two British journalists, were given 10-year sentences. – AFP