Egypt court releases two Al Jazeera journalists but case not dismissed: judge

A file picture taken on Jun 23, 2014 shows Al-Jazeera news channel's journalists Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy (right) and Egyptian Baher Mohamed (left) listening to the verdict inside the defendants cage during their trial for allegedly supporting
A file picture taken on Jun 23, 2014 shows Al-Jazeera news channel's journalists Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy (right) and Egyptian Baher Mohamed (left) listening to the verdict inside the defendants cage during their trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at the police institute near Cairo's Tora prison.  -- PHOTO: AFP

CAIRO (AFP) - An Egyptian court on Thursday ordered the release of two Al-Jazeera journalists pending their retrial for allegedly supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood.  

Canadian Mohamed Fahmy was ordered to pay bail of 250,000 Egyptian pounds (S$45,000) while Egyptian Baher Mohamed was released on his own recognisance along with other defendants.  The case was adjourned until February 23.  

“I AM FREE,” read a message on Mohamed’s Twitter account following the release order, which came during the first hearing in the retrial.  

Along with Australian colleague Peter Greste, the two journalists had been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison in a case that sparked global outrage.  

An appeals court ordered a retrial saying the prosecution had failed to prove its case.  Greste was freed and sent home earlier this month under a law passed last year allowing foreigners to be deported to their home countries to stand trial or serve out their sentences.

Greste welcomed the release of his colleagues.  “This is a huge step forward. Not time to declare it over, but at least you get to go home!” he wrote on Twitter.

Al-Jazeera said Thursday was “a great, great day” immediately after they heard that their reporters had been freed pending retrial by a court in Egypt.

Heather Allan, head of newsgathering at Al-Jazeera English, said just minutes after the news of their release: “We are very grateful. This is a great, great day for us and we just hope that... the whole thing is thrown out.”

The pair had been in jail for 411 days but have been released from prison pending their retrial for allegedly supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood.  Their case has been adjourned until February 23.  Mohamed and Fahmy were arrested at the height of a diplomatic row between Egypt and Qatar, which owns Al-Jazeera.  

The broadcaster, whose main office is in the Qatari capital Doha, had been critical of the deadly crackdown on Mohamed Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement following the Islamist leader’s overthrow.  

Qatar has since moved to mend ties with Egypt, and Al-Jazeera has closed its Arabic-language Egyptian affiliate which was sympathetic to the Brotherhood.  An official statement released by the broadcaster warned however that the case was still not finished.

 “Bail is a small step in the right direction and allows Baher and Mohamed to spend time with their families after 411 days apart,” it said.  “The focus though is still on the court reaching the correct verdict at the next hearing by dismissing this absurd case and releasing both these fine journalists unconditionally.”

Allan added that Al-Jazeera would also work to clear the name of several other of its journalists tried and convicted in absentia.

The case has been a major source of embarrassment for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he seeks to shore up international support following a widely condemned crackdown on the opposition.