Egypt court to begin retrial of Al-Jazeera journalists accused of links to Brotherhood

Al-Jazeera journalists (from left) Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed standing behind bars at a court in Cairo in this May 15, 2014 photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS  
Al-Jazeera journalists (from left) Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed standing behind bars at a court in Cairo in this May 15, 2014 photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS  

CAIRO (AFP) - An Egyptian court is to begin a retrial of Al-Jazeera journalists on Thursday, including a Canadian awaiting deportation, after an appeals court said their initial trial failed to show Muslim Brotherhood links.

The appeals court on Jan 1 ordered the retrial of three Al-Jazeera journalists after overturning a lower court's verdict that found them guilty of aiding the outlawed Islamist movement.

The Court of Cassation said it ordered the retrial since the lower court's verdict "lacked evidence to support its ruling". "The criminal court was hasty in pronouncing its verdict," it said. "The court did not wait for medical and legal reports which it had requested after several defendants spoke of being under physical and moral pressure" to make confessions, the appeals court said.

One of the defendants, Australian Peter Greste, has since been released under a new law that allows the deportation of foreign nationals on trial in Egypt.

The lower court had sentenced Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed to up to 10 years' jail for spreading "false news" in their coverage of protests after the ouster of president Mohamed Mursi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The three journalists of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English were arrested in December 2013.

Their arrest sparked a global outcry and calls for their release led by Washington and the United Nations.

Since the retrial was ordered, Fahmy has renounced his Egyptian citizenship to also benefit from the deportation law.

However the third journalist, producer Mohamed, faces an indefinite period in jail as he only has Egyptian nationality.

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 organisation". Two defendants were acquitted, while the other three - also foreigners - were convicted in absentia.

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

The Islamist leader was toppled by then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on July 3, 2013, before the latter was himself elected president.

Defence lawyers say the new court could drop proceedings against Greste after the opening session on Thursday.

Canada, for its part, said last week that Fahmy's release was "imminent".

Fahmy's family had expected him to be freed soon after Greste's deportation, but he is still in custody and they have called his retrial their "worst nightmare".

As for Mohamed, his wife Jihan Rashid said the family is "paying the price for being Egyptian" as he faces an indefinite period behind bars.

Mohamed's only options are an acquittal or a presidential pardon, which Mr Sisi's office has said could only come after the retrial.

"We will ask for him to be released on bail," said Mohamed's lawyer Mostafa Nagui.

In November, Mr Sisi enacted a decree apparently tailored for Greste and Fahmy: foreigners on trial or convicted in Egypt could be deported back home to stand trial or serve out their sentences.

Both Australia and Canada have made clear they will not put Greste and Fahmy on trial.