Al-Jazeera Journalists Walk Free In Egypt After Sisi Pardon

Cairo (AFP) - Canadian Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy and colleague Baher Mohamed walked free after being pardoned along with scores of others Wednesday by Egypt's president, following criticism of his government for jailing opponents.

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.

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 and were waiting there for family members.

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.

- Greste 'overjoyed' -

An award-winning former BBC reporter, Greste said in an interview with Al-Jazeera that 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," said Greste.

"More than anything else, we've been concerned for their safety, concerned for their welfare."

It was not immediately clear if Greste was included in the pardon, and the pan-Arab network continued to demand that 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.

After their sentencing last month, Egypt summoned the British ambassador to Cairo for criticising the ruling.

The United States and the United Nations had led calls for the journalists' release.

- Fahmy wants 'nationality back' -

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 fiancee, Marwa Omran said that, after his release, "he wants to pursue getting his nationality back".

The pardons came on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, when prisoner releases often take place in Muslim countries.

They also came a day before Sisi is due to head to New York, where he will deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly.

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.

( AFP )

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