Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Moving towards release?

A Court of Cassation decision accepting an appeal by three jailed Al-Jazeera journalists may assist their release from detention, writes Ahmed Morsy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Court of Cassation accepted an appeal filed by three jailed Al-Jazeera English journalists on 1 January, in which they asked for a retrial.

The three journalists, imprisoned for over a year, were sentenced in June to between seven and ten years in jail on charges of spreading lies to help a “terrorist organisation,” a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. The three contested the rulings passed against them, saying they were simply doing their jobs in reporting on the Brotherhood.

Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, has been detained since December 2013 along with Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmi and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, all from the Qatari-based television network.

The Court’s decision comes amid a growing rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar after months of soured relations due to the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood organisation.

Al-Jazeera English has called on the Egyptian authorities to speed up the retrial of its three jailed journalists, after the Court accepted their appeal last week, since, according to the three’s defence lawyer the appeals process could take another 12 to 18 months.

“We welcome the Court’s decision to accept the appeal of our journalists, but at the same time we demand that they are immediately released,” Mostafa Sawaq, acting general manager of the Qatari media network said in a video statement.

“Their arrest, the verdict against them and their remaining in jail in our view are politicised and thus we wish a political decision would be taken to release them without waiting for a retrial,” Sawaq said.

Egypt’s relations with Qatar have been strained since the ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests on 31 June 2013. Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, was supportive of both Morsi and the Brotherhood. Since Morsi’s ousting, Al-Jazeera, seen as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood, has dedicated much of its air time to its protests and anti-Egyptian government speakers.

Nevertheless, the tensions have shown signs of easing recently. Qatar expelled several prominent Brotherhood leaders in September and in November Egypt welcomed a Saudi initiative to end the tensions in Egyptian-Qatari relations.

Earlier, the three journalists had been expected to be home by Christmas when Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi approved a law in November that allowed for the deportation of foreign journalists to their home countries before an Egyptian court issued final verdicts in their cases.

The law was described at that time by Alaa Youssef, a presidential spokesperson, as being “issued to maintain Egypt’s international image.”

Fahmy, a Canadian citizen, and Australian Greste have applied to Egypt’s prosecutor-general to be deported to their home countries under the terms of the new presidential decree. This would allow them to avoid retrial in Cairo. Mohamed, as an Egyptian national, cannot take this option.

What gave additional weight to the hopes of early release was Al-Sisi’s statement in late November that he was considering pardoning the journalists. Asked if he could pardon the Al-Jazeera journalists during an interview with the France 24 television network, Al-Sisi replied, “Let us say that ways to solve this issue are being discussed.”

Many observers believed that Al-Jazeeras’s decision to suspend the broadcasting of its Egyptian channel on 22 December would lead to the three journalists’ release. The decision came two days after Al-Sisi met with Qatari envoy Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani, which formalised a Saudi-brokered reconciliation between the two countries.

The Doha Centre for Media Freedom, a Qatari media organisation, has called for the release of the journalists, saying that this would be “the first step towards opening a new chapter in Egypt-Qatar relations.”

“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. They should choose the former,” an Al-Jazeera spokesperson said following the retrial decision.

The case has brought international opprobrium on Egypt.

The Doha Centre’s Sami Elhaj said calls for the release of the Al-Jazeera journalists had been made by the White House, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the European Union, the Australian government and over 150 rights groups, including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and International Press Institute.

He added that over 200,000 people have signed petitions globally and hundreds of thousands of people had kept the hash tag #FreeAJStaff viral throughout the last year, urging the Egyptian authorities to release the three journalists.

In the US, the Obama administration has expressed its concern at the continued detentions.

“We are following this case closely and continue to urge the Egyptian government to consider all available measures to release these journalists,” said a senior US state department official.

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