CAIRO — An Egyptian appeals court on Thursday ordered the retrial of three Al-Jazeera English journalists held for over a year on terror-related charges, a ruling that their lawyers hoped was a step toward resolving a case that brought a storm of international criticism on Egypt's government.
The three will remain behind bars at least until the retrial begins. But their lawyers expressed cautious optimism that a quick retrial will lead to their eventual exoneration. Thursday's ruling by the Court of Cassation, rights advocates said, exposed the highly politicized nature of their initial conviction and heavy sentences of up to 10 years in prison in a trial that they dismissed as a sham with no evidence.
The journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed, have argued they were targeted because of the Egyptian government's political fight with Qatar, the Gulf nation that finances the Al-Jazeera news network. The two countries have been at odds over Qatar's support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egyptian authorities have cracked down on ferociously since the July 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Hopes have been raised that Egypt's government now intends to free the men because of a recent public reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar.
A retrial would give a way out of the case for Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who in the past has largely turned aside calls for him to pardon the three by insisting he will not interfere in the judiciary. A retrial would also allow Cairo to continue to use the case as a bargaining chip with Qatar.
Nothing, however, is certain, with the defendants and their families largely left reading the tea leaves from political shifts and vague statements by authorities.
A date for the retrial was not immediately set, but rights advocates said its opening session would likely give the strongest indication of the government's intentions. If the new judge orders the three released on bail, for example, it could point to a plan to wrap up the case with the defendants' freedom.
"The way the second trial is managed will mirror the potential political will," said leading rights advocate Bahy Eddin Hassan who is also the head of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "This is in the context of overwhelming politicization of judicial system in Egypt."
A spokesman for Al-Jazeera, Osama Saeed, called on el-Sissi to pardon the three or, failing that, urged that the retrial be swift.
"Now make that retrial expedited, swift and fast with the right judgment in the end that the guys are released," Saeed said, speaking to The Associated Press in Doha.
Fahmy and Greste were arrested in a December 2013 raid, two on the hotel room they were using as an office, while covering the wave of protests by Morsi's Islamist supporters, while Mohammed was taken from his home. After their arrest, the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The three were charged with helping terrorists by acting as the Brotherhood's mouthpiece and falsifying news to destabilize Egypt.
In their initial trial, prosecutors presented no concrete evidence, only samples of the team's news reports on protests, with no proof of falsification or of a connection to the Brotherhood. The prosecution also presented as evidence footage found on the journalists' computers that even the judge dismissed as irrelevant, including Greste's past news reports from Somalia and other countries for other news channels.
Fahmy and Greste were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mohammed got 10 years — three more because he was found with a spent bullet casing, which brought him an added possession of ammunition charge. The defendants argued they were arrested for just doing their jobs.
Since Morsi's fall, Egyptian vilified the Al-Jazeera network as doing Qatar's bidding in supporting the Brotherhood and fueling Islamist protests. The station denies the accusations.
But past weeks have brought a patching up of ties between Egypt and Qatar, on the heels of a reconciliation deal reached between Qatar and Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, el-Sissi's main backers.
El-Sissi recently met with a Qatari envoy, saying afterward that Egypt hoped the meeting was the start of a "new era" between them. Days later, Al-Jazeera closed its Egyptian affiliate, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which had long angered Egyptian authorities with its near constant coverage of Islamists.
"These journalists should not be caught in the middle of this remote conflict between two nations," Adel Fahmy, Mohammed Fahmy's brother, said after Thursday's ruling.
The three journalists did not attend hearing at the Court of Cassation, which lasted less than 30 minutes. Their families afterward expressed dismay that the court did not immediately order their release on bail, but legal experts said the Cassation Court does not have the authority to do so, only the judge in the retrial.
The verdict was "not as good as we hoped," said Lois Greste, Peter Greste's mother.
Still, Greste's lawyer, Amr el-Dib, hailed the ruling.
"This is a very good and optimistic decision. It will give them a second round of litigation," el-Dib said. "Hopefully when we go to the retrial, we can defend the defendants and present adequate support to try to set them free."
Fahmy's lawyer, Negad al-Borai, said the defense lawyers based their argument on the fact that the first court has been set up as a "special court" for the specific case, which is against the law. Among other grounds of his appeal, he said the initial court based its verdict on the assumption that as long as the journalists work for Al-Jazeera, they are members of the Muslim Brotherhood group, in absence of evidence that shows the connection.
Egyptian authorities offered no immediate comment on the ruling.
Under a recently passed law, el-Sissi also has the power to deport the foreigners during their trial. That would allow Greste to go home and would allow Fahmy to go to Canada if he drops his Egyptian nationality. Baher Mohammed's case would remain more uncertain as he holds only Egyptian citizenship.
Fahmy's family said that they already submitted a request.
"It is another side option but we don't know if it's going to materialize or not. It's an option on the table," Fahmy's brother said. "It all depends on what the government wants to do with the foreigners."
El-Dib said that Greste also asked the prosecutor-general for deportation but "it is hard to predict" given the fact that "there is no precedent."
AP journalist Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.