Egypt’s highest court on Thursday ordered a retrial for three journalists who were convicted last year on terror-related charges and given long prison sentences, but did not order the release of the men, who have already spent more than a year behind bars.
The case of the three journalists, who work for the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera English, has been closely watched by press-freedom groups and human rights organizations. Western diplomats have pressured Egypt’s government to free the men, who include Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, an Egyptian holding Canadian citizenship. The third, Baher Mohamed, is Egyptian.
Convicted last June, the three were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison. All strongly denied any wrongdoing, as did their employer, and the state produced virtually no evidence to support its claims against them, instead showing the court videos unrelated to the case and displaying ordinary possessions such as mobile phones and laptops.
While the order for a retrial was welcomed by supporters, the journalists’ continued imprisonment was a heavy blow to families of the three, who had hoped that they might be freed pending a new trial, or that the charges would be thrown out altogether. The journalists were arrested on Dec. 29, 2013, and accused of making false reports that aided the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the men's lawyers, Amr Al-Deeb, told reporters after Thursday’s brief session by the Court of Cassation that the question of bail would have to be taken up by the court holding the retrial. No date has yet been set.
Egypt’s government has for the last 18 months engaged in a wide-ranging crackdown on the Brotherhood, which has been branded a terrorist organization. Thousands of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi have been jailed and more than 1,000 others killed in clashes with Egyptian security forces.
The case against the three men was strongly colored from the start by geopolitics, coinciding with a furious dispute between Egypt and the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera. Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood and demanded Morsi’s reinstatement after the then-defense minister and now president, Abdel Fattah Sisi, removed him from office in a popularly supported coup.
Egyptian-Qatari relations have thawed somewhat in recent weeks, raising hopes that the Al Jazeera case would be resolved. The broadcaster closed down an Egyptian affiliate that had long been a thorn in the side of Egyptian authorities, and Sisi met last month with a Qatari envoy.