Facing sustained international criticism over its human rights record, Egypt on Sunday freed Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent for Al Jazeera, who was one of three journalists for the Qatar-based broadcaster jailed more than a year ago on terrorism-related charges.
Greste was deported almost immediately, flying to Cyprus on Sunday evening and then onward to his homeland. The fate of his two colleagues was not immediately clear, but one of them, Mohamed Fahmy, holds Canadian citizenship and was reported by supporters to be hoping for deportation soon as well.
Greste is “safe, healthy and very, very happy to be on his way home,” his brother Andrew told reporters in Australia on Wednesday, adding that the freed journalist’s thoughts were with his still-captive Al Jazeera colleagues.
Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, “also deserve to be free,” Andrew Greste said. “Peter won’t rest until they are released.”
The journalists’ case drew intense scrutiny from rights groups and media advocacy organizations after the trio’s arrest in December 2013.
The case came amid a wide-ranging crackdown by authorities that has imperiled many basic liberties and resulted in the jailing of more than 40,000 people. The erratic court proceedings were widely viewed as an embarrassment to Egypt.
The three strongly denied any wrongdoing, and supporters described the case as highly politicized, driven by the rift between Qatar and Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah Sisi, over the wealthy emirate’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. There have been recent signs of a thaw between Qatar and Egypt, however.
Peter Greste’s freeing reportedly came on the orders of Sisi, who led the popularly supported 2013 coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Morsi is imprisoned and facing a variety of charges, some of them capital crimes.
The three journalists had been given sentences of seven to 10 years in prison, but a retrial was ordered late last year upon appeal, raising hope that they would soon be freed. Al Jazeera on Sunday reiterated its demand that all three be fully exonerated.
“We’re pleased for Peter and his family,” the network’s acting director general, Mostefa Souag, said in a statement on Al Jazeera’s website. But “we will not rest until Baher and Mohamed also regain their freedom. The Egyptian authorities have it in their power to finish this properly today, and that is exactly what they must do.”
Although supporters welcomed Greste’s release, many commentators pointed out that Egypt’s jails are filled with detainees whose only crime was peaceful protest or opposition to the government. In its annual report last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch singled out Egypt for particular criticism, alleging a plethora of abuses including military trials and jailhouse torture.
On Sunday, another major rights group, Amnesty International, accused Egyptian authorities of attempting to cover up the deaths of at least 27 people during three days of protests last month commemorating the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Those killed included a female activist, Shaimaa Sabbagh, who was shot while on her way to lay flowers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Her dying moments were captured in photos that were widely shared on social media, prompting a flood of denunciations of security forces’ use of lethal force to break up peaceful demonstrations.
Times staff writer Lauren Raab in Los Angeles contributed to this report.