CAIRO (REUTERS) - Egypt's highest court cancelled jail sentences against three journalists working for Al Jazeera television on Thursday and ordered a retrial, a defence lawyer said.
Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian national Baher Mohamed are serving seven- to ten-year sentences on charges of aiding the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and publishing false news about Egypt.
The reporters were jailed in December 2013 on charges of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood in a case that triggered global outrage.
"The Court of Cassation has accepted their appeal and ordered a retrial," Mr Greste's defence lawyer Amr Al-Deeb said after a hearing lasting just 30 minutes.
The defendants were not at the hearing, which lasted just 30 minutes. Hopes for the journalists' release have grown following a thaw in diplomatic relations between Cairo and Qatar, where their employer is based. Both the defence and the prosecution had requested a retrial.
"I hope the reconciliation efforts between Egypt and Qatar continue for the sake of my brother and his colleagues ... who are paying the price of a political crisis," Fahmy's brother Adel told reporters. Mohamed's wife Jihan welcomed the retrial as a "small but positive step towards my husband being freed".
"This past year has been the worst year of me and my children's lives," she added.
Al-Jazeera called for the swift release of its employees.
"The Egyptian authorities have a simple choice - free these men quickly or continue to string this out, all the while continuing this injustice and harming the image of their own country in the eyes of the world," the channel said. "They should choose the former."
The reporters, who authorities say lacked proper accreditation, were sentenced in June for aiding the Muslim Brotherhood after the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The Brotherhood, which saw electoral success after the overthrow of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has since been declared a "terrorist organisation" in Egypt.
Analysts said the retrial appeared to be a step towards the release of the journalists. "The question is now about time ... how quickly will the retrial be conducted," H.A. Hellyer of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington told AFP. "It might not be a full acquittal. There are other options, with sentences ranging from time served to suspended sentences. But it is quite likely it will end in their release."
A date for the retrial has not yet been announced. But defence lawyer Shabaan Saeed said it was expected to begin soon as "the government wants to end the case as fast as possible".
The reporters were arrested when Egypt and Qatar were at loggerheads after Morsi was removed by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president, following mass protests against his one-year rule.
"Their arrest was a settling of political scores between Egypt and Qatar," Fahmy's lawyer Negad al-Borai said.