CAIRO (AFP) - Two Al-Jazeera journalists walked free after being pardoned on Wednesday along with scores of others by Egypt’s president, following criticism of his government for jailing opponents.
The release of Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and colleague Baher Mohamed was welcomed by their supporters, with Al-Jazeera saying it was “delighted” and Fahmy’s lawyer Amal Clooney calling it “a historic day”.
The 100 prisoners pardoned by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi included women activists Sana Seif and Yara Sallam, the President’s office said, in a goodwill gesture on the eve of a major Muslim holiday.
The move came a day before Sisi is due to head to New York to deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly.
Within hours of the announcement, Fahmy and Mohamed were dropped off by authorities in the upmarket Cairo suburb of Maadi in their blue prison uniforms.
They told an AFP correspondent on the spot that they were looking forward to being reunited with their families, but were unsure of their long-term plans.
“I’m feeling ecstatic knowing that I don’t have to worry about lawyers, police officers following me all over the place and knowing that I’m going to share my apartment tonight with my beloved wife,” said Fahmy.
Mohamed said: “We’re very, very happy. But we’re a bit surprised about how it was done”.
The pair had been sentenced in a retrial in August to three years for fabricating “false” news in support of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which the army removed from power in 2013 and outlawed.
The retrial was ordered early this year after an appeals court overturned an initial sentence of seven years, saying the prosecution had presented scant evidence.
Australian reporter and Al-Jazeera colleague Peter Greste was also convicted, but was deported by presidential decree in February after 400 days in jail.
An award-winning former BBC reporter, Greste said he was “overjoyed” by their release.
“President Sisi has taken a very important step in restoring confidence in the system but it is only a partial step,” he told Al-Jazeera.
Al-Jazeera said it was “delighted” by their release, but added that celebrations were muted.
“It is hard to celebrate though as this whole episode should not have happened in the first place.”
It was not immediately clear if Greste was included in the pardon, and the pan-Arab network is still demanding all charges and sentences against its journalists be dropped.
The detention and trial sparked global criticism of Sisi, who has said he wished the journalists had been deported from the outset rather than put on trial.
The United States and the United Nations had led calls for the journalists’ release.
Their arrest in December 2013 came at a time of heightened unrest and a deadly crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood following Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow by the military.
At the time, Qatar, which owns Al-Jazeera, had been supportive of the Islamists.
Fahmy had dropped his Egyptian citizenship to qualify for deportation like Greste.
His euphoric wife, Marwa Omran said that after his release “he wants to pursue getting his nationality back”.
The Canadian government welcomed the news.
“We look forward to Mr. Fahmy reuniting with his family and loved ones, and his return to Canada,” the foreign ministry said.
Clooney said she was also “delighted”.
“This is a historic day in Egypt where the government has finally corrected a longstanding injustice, and set two innocent men free,” she said in a statement.
The pardons came on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, when prisoner releases often take place in Muslim countries.
Amnesty International welcomed the pardons but said they were a “token gesture while hundreds of others remain detained”.
The pardons appeared to be mainly of activists, with the presidency saying the cases involved violations of a protest law and “assaulting police officers,” in addition to some releases on health grounds.
Sisi has faced mounting calls to release activists such as Seif and Sallam, a human rights worker detained after a small protest outside the presidential palace in 2014.
The two women were charged with holding an illegal protest, under a law that bans all but police-sanctioned demonstrations, and sentenced to three years in jail.
No official list was immediately issued of those pardoned, leaving it unclear whether other secular activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher were included.
It was also not known if the pardon covered Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a photographer arrested in August 2013 as hundreds of Islamist protesters were killed in clashes with police clearing two Cairo sit-ins.
Thousands of Islamists, including Morsi, have been arrested since his overthrow, and scores sentenced to death.
But the crackdown on the Islamists has also extended to secular-leaning activists who had supported Morsi’s overthrow after his divisive year in power.
Sisi, the former army chief who was elected president in 2014, remains popular with many Egyptians as he seeks to put an end to unrest in the wake of the country’s 2011 revolution that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak.
He has vowed to steer clear of court cases out of respect for the judiciary’s independence.