CAIRO — For a year, three Al-Jazeera English journalists have been locked up in Egypt on terrorism-related charges widely viewed as trumped up for political reasons.
Now, a possible thaw in tensions between Egypt, and Qatar— where Al-Jazeera is based and is funded— has raised a glimmer of hope that the three journalists may be able to resume their lives. A retrial, deportation or a pardon are all possibilities, but the lack of certainty prolongs the torment of the defendants, their families and other journalists.
"It is a very tough experience, not only on him but on his family," said Marwa Omara, the fiancee of Mohammed Fahmy, the Canadian-Egyptian journalist who was Al-Jazeera English's acting Cairo bureau chief.
Fahmy and Australian journalist Peter Greste were sentenced to seven years in prison in a trial that ended in June on charges of assisting the Muslim Brotherhood in a plot to destabilize Egypt. The team's Egyptian producer, Baher Mohammed, got 10 years — seven on the same charges and three more because he was found with a spent bullet casing he picked up as a souvenir, considered possession of ammunition.
Egypt's Court of Cassation begins hearing their appeal on Thursday. It takes place as Egypt and Qatar appear to be moving to resolve their bitter rivalry. The tension followed the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, and Qatar's support of the Brotherhood and his Islamist supporters.
Omara said the trial really targeted Al-Jazeera and Qatar, not the journalists, and so will be resolved politically. Fahmy "is a pawn in a cold war between Egypt and Qatar," she told The Associated Press.
The families of Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed are accustomed to the risks of their sons' jobs. But they never expected to be dragged into a bigger political dispute in a region roiled by a turbulent transition. The arrest has thrown their lives into confusion. Omara and Fahmy had to put off their wedding, which had been scheduled four months after his arrest. Mohammed's wife, Jehane Rashed, delivered their third son while he was in prison.
"I know it is a dangerous job...But I never thought I would have to defend my husband against being called a traitor to his country," Rashed told AP.
The unprecedented arrest and prosecution on terrorism charges was part of an escalated crackdown on journalists in Egypt in general following Morsi's ouster. There are at least 12 other Egyptian journalists arrested since last year who are still behind bars, facing various charges including participating in protests or using violence.
The three Al-Jazeera journalists were detained in a Dec. 29, 2013 raid on the Cairo hotel room they were using as an office. The arrest came as the government was cracking down on Islamists following Morsi's ouster. Authorities accused Al-Jazeera of acting as a mouthpiece for Morsi's Brotherhood and threatening national security. The station denied the accusations and said the journalists were doing their job, covering protests by Morsi's supporters.
In the subsequent trial, no evidence was put forward backing accusations the three falsified footage to foment unrest. Prosecutors simply presented edited new reports by the journalists, including Islamist protests and interviews with politicians. Other footage submitted as evidence had nothing to do with the case, including a report on a veterinary hospital and Greste's past reports out of Africa.
Rights groups dismissed the trial as a sham.
The U.S. State Department has regarded the trial with alarm. On Monday, spokesman Jeff Rathke said the U.S. was expressing its concerns over the imprisonment of the al-Jazeera journalists directly to the Egyptian government.
"We believe that all journalists should be able to do their jobs free from intimidation or any fear of retribution," Rathke told reporters. "We continue to urge the Egyptian government to respect the freedom of the press, protect civil society and uphold the rule of law, which is crucial to Egypt's long-term stability."
Despite hopes for a solution now, the families are taking nothing for granted. Nothing is certain — it's not even sure that Egypt and Qatar have turned a corner.
"We are biting our nails. And the next three days are going to be pretty tough," Greste's mother, Lois, told AP in Cairo, where she and his father Juris have come to attend the appeal's opening.
"We have spent enough time in Egypt, in Cairo, to have learned not to react to expectations and rumors and talk," his father, Juris Greste, said. "We will only be certain of anything when we can embrace Peter and, as I have said before, when we are at 30,000 feet in a civilian aircraft in direction to home."
The thaw in Egypt-Qatar ties has raised speculation that Egypt will resolve the case either through the appeal process or through a pardon by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. El-Sissi has in the past said he won't interfere in the judiciary by pardoning the three. But he also said that if it had been up to him, he would have never sent the case to trial and deported the journalists instead.
In one likely sign of the reconciliation, Al-Jazeera shut down its Egypt affiliate, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which dedicated its coverage to Egypt and in particular to its Islamists, angering the Cairo government. But Egypt could be pushing for more — pro-government media, for instance, are demanding Qatar kick out or hand over senior Islamists accused by Cairo of instigating violence.
The Cassation court, Egypt's highest appeal tribunal, will review the lower court's proceedings, not the substance of the case. It can uphold the previous verdict or order a retrial. If it does order a new trial, it could order them released on bail in the meantime or it could order them held until a new trial date is set.
If a retrial is ruled, authorities could evoke a law passed last month — or the defendants and their families could request it be evoked — that allows for the deportation of foreign nationals who are convicted or are still on trial. That would allow Greste to go home, and would allow Fahmy to go to Canada, if he drops his Egyptian nationality. Omara, his finance, said his family has already asked prosecutors to allow Fahmy to benefit from the law.
"If this is the only option that we have than yes, we welcome his deportation," Omara, who is already applying for a visa to Canada— just in case. They also have tentative plans to hold a small wedding party if Fahmy is released. If not, they have applied to get married in jail.
The case of Baher Mohammed is more uncertain. He holds only an Egyptian nationality and so cannot benefit from the deportation law. His family says they have also been denied access to the courtroom, unlike the families of Greste and Fahmy.
"Only Egyptians will suffer? They have no value?" said Rashed, Mohammed's wife.
A member of Fahmy's defense team, Negad Borai, said if the law were applied, the court would surely order a retrial, since there was no case in the first place. He said the prosecution only happened because security agencies were battling the political dispute.
"When the security and intelligence are left to create foreign policy of any country, both will fail: the security and the foreign policy."