An Egyptian court ordered the release of two jailed Al-Jazeera journalists Thursday pending retrial, after they spent more than 400 days in prison in a case that sparked worldwide outrage.
Mohamed Fahmy, who is Canadian and whose family hoped he would be deported, must pay 250,000 Egyptian pounds ($33,000) bail while his colleague, Egyptian Baher Mohamed, was freed on his own recognisance along with other defendants.
The case was adjourned until February 23, the court said.
Fahmy and Mohamed appeared in white prison uniforms before the Cairo court, after Australian colleague Peter Greste was deported home earlier this month.
The three were accused of supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and originally jailed for between seven and 10 years each.
The case has been a major source of embarrassment for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he seeks to shore up international support following a widely condemned crackdown on the opposition.
Fahmy had renounced his Egyptian citizenship to benefit from a law that allows the deportation of foreign defendants and which led to Greste’s release.
On Thursday’s first session of their retrial, Fahmy’s defence asked the court to free him.
Fahmy himself was then allowed out of the caged dock to address the judge.
“I didn’t ask to drop my (Egyptian) nationality,” he said, his arm in a blue sling from an accident he had suffered before his arrest in December 2013.
“A security official visited me and asked I drop my citizenship because the state wanted to get this case done with, it had become a nightmare,” Fahmy said before pulling out a large Egyptian flag.
Greste was on the judge’s roll call of defendants at the start of the trial.
“He’s not here sir,” responded a police officer when the judge called out his name.
The three journalists had spend more than a year in jail before an appeals court ordered a retrial saying the prosecution had failed to prove its case.
Sisi passed a law by decree last year allowing foreigners to be deported to their home countries to stand trial or serve out their sentences.
Canada last week said Fahmy’s release was “imminent”, but voiced concern that he had not been freed upon renouncing his nationality.
“We are in shock and we feel that the Canadian government has failed in getting Mohamed out,” Omara said.
The Canadian ambassador was inside the courtroom before the start of the trial.
– ‘Huge step forward’ –
Greste congratulated his two colleagues after their release was announced.
“This is a huge step forward. Not time to declare it over, but at least you get to go home!” the Australian wrote on Twitter.
The three journalists of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English were arrested in December 2013 and charged with spreading false news about Egypt and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Their arrests and continued detentions sparked widespread condemnation and calls for their release led by Washington and the United Nations.
The retrial was ordered after Egypt’s Court of Cassation ruled in January that the lower court “lacked evidence to support its ruling” in the original verdict.
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 ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
The Islamist leader was toppled by then army chief Sisi in July 2013, before Sisi was himself elected president.
While Fahmy may still be deported — although that appears less likely once the trial starts — Mohamed’s only hope is for an acquittal.