By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Wrongfully convicted Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are free at last.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pardoned the two Al Jazeera journalists in late September, a month after an Egyptian judge sentenced them to three years in prison. The two journalists were still wearing their prison uniforms when authorities dropped them off in a Cairo suburb, BBC News reported.
Throughout the journalists’ two-year ordeal, Egyptian officials were widely condemned worldwide for attempting to intimidate and silence journalists with trumped-up charges and a sham trial.
“While these pardons come as a great relief, it is ludicrous that some of these people were ever behind bars in the first place,” Amnesty International said.
The Egyptian president also pardoned Peter Greste, a third Al Jazeera journalist jailed with Fahmy and Mohamed, and 100 other political prisoners. Greste, an Australian citizen, was deported in February after spending more than 400 days in prison. He was convicted in absentia.
A statement from President Sisi’s office said Fahmy and Mohamed were named on a decree pardoning 100 young people “who had received final court sentences, having been convicted on the grounds of violating the anti-protest law and assaulting police forces.” It went on to say that other prisoners were pardoned due to “health conditions and on humanitarian grounds.”
“It’s a small gesture, but it provides the government with an argument: ‘We have gotten people out of jail. We are not as crazy as people want to portray us,’” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “It also sent another message: ‘When people benefit from the government, it is through a decision from the top.’”
But let’s not fool ourselves.
It is no coincidence that Sisi’s pardon was issued one day before he was scheduled to fly to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly. The only reason he chose to do so in September was that he didn’t want to face the international community with such a high-profile case hanging over his head.
Earlier, he’d said that he would have deported the journalists rather than try them, but was reluctant to interfere with judicial rulings.
Among those criticizing Egypt was Prince Zeid bin Raad of Jordan, the UN high commissioner for human rights, who said: “We are very disturbed by these three sentences and the extra pressure it creates on journalists in Egypt who are just trying to do their jobs.”
The fact that at least 18 other journalists remain in Egyptian jails on questionable charges shows an utter disregard for international human rights laws and the rights of journalists to gather and report news without government interference.
The case against Fahmy, Mohamed and Greste attracted worldwide attention and support from media groups, journalists, human rights advocates and foreign leaders who accused Egypt of violating press freedom and persecuting journalists. They argued that the case against the journalists was unjust, unfounded and politically motivated.
The journalists were arrested in their Cairo hotel room in December 2013 and charged with broadcasting false news. By the time of their trial, the charges against them had grown to include aiding a terrorists’ organization, being part of a terrorist cell, plotting with the Muslim Brotherhood to produce false news and engaging in a plot with Satan.
The journalists fiercely denied the charges. Worldwide supporters called the case against them “a sham.” During the trial, the prosecution never presented any evidence that the journalists belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or had engaged in false reporting. Some of the videos presented as “evidence” were filmed three years before Fahmy worked at Al Jazeera.
Mohamed said his release after 411 days in prison was like having “a big rock on your chest suddenly moved.”
“I kept jumping and jumping,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Finally.’ I’m happy that I will return back, I will not stay in prison. I’m happy that I’m going back to my family, seeing my family and my kids. I just spoke to my wife and kids now. They were very happy that I’m returning home. This is something very beautiful and I really appreciate. And I’m willing to continue this for freedom of press.”
Make no mistake about it. The presidential pardons do not mean that Egypt will suddenly become a beacon of free expression. Egyptian officials continue to give lip service to human rights and systematically stifle dissent with a free press one of its many persecuted victims.
At least now Fahmy, Mohamed and Greste will be able to travel the world and do their jobs as free men rather than convicted felons. They have a determined international community to thank for that, not President Sisi.