CAIRO — An Egyptian judge on Thursday ordered the release on bail of a pair of Al-Jazeera English journalists being retried on terror-related charges, bringing cheers from their families who have sought to get them out of detention for more than a year and are hoping for a resolution in the case.
The prosecution of the journalists, who were convicted by a lower court after a trial widely dismissed as a sham, has brought heavy international criticism on Egypt. Two weeks earlier, a third defendant — Australian Peter Greste — was deported, a step widely seen as a signal that authorities want to find a face-saving way to end the controversy.
His co-defendant, Mohammed Fahmy, is also seeking deportation. He renounced his Egyptian citizenship to be eligible for deportation to Canada, where he also holds citizenship. But the judge on Thursday didn't address the issue, instead ordering Fahmy to post the equivalent of $33,000 in bail. No other defendant was ordered to post bail. Judge Hassan Farid adjourned the trial until Feb. 23.
A third defendant, Baher Mohammed, holds no foreign citizenship and is not eligible for the deportation option.
"I didn't ask to give up my Egyptian citizenship. I was asked to do so," Fahmy said in the courtroom, wearing a sling for a shoulder that has been injured since before his arrest and only worsened in detention. He said security officials had asked him to do so because the case had become a "nightmare" for Egypt and an official told him "citizenship is not a piece of paper. It is in the heart."
Fahmy said had been told by Canadian officials that his deportation was imminent. "We packed up our luggage. My fiance quit. We booked tickets" Attendees clapped after he finished his statement, and he raised an Egyptian flag to the audience. He said the official reassured him that he can always come back to Egypt to reapply for citizenship.
Lawyers also said the judge said all defendants must report to their local police station every day and in a vague sentence said none are allowed to leave their hometown. Fahmy's lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr said it was not clear if this was an explicit decision against Fahmy leaving. Also being freed on bail are 11 other defendants in the case, mostly students charged with involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood.
It was not immediately clear if they would walk free Thursday, the last day before the weekend in Egypt. And what comes next is unclear. Defendants' lawyers and families believe authorities want to resolve the case but how they would do so — and how long it would take is not known. The intention may be to finish the retrial.
Canadian Minister of State for Consular Affairs Lynne Yelich welcomed the bail order and called for Fahmy's "immediate and full release," saying he should not have to face retrial. She urged President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to resolve the case.
Still, the families of defendants cheered the decision.
Fahmy's fiancée, Marwa Omara, broke down in tears, and cried: "Love live Justice."
"I am very happy. It is a rebirth for me and Mohamed," she said. She added that they will plan their long delayed wedding now that Fahmy is to be released.
Mohammed's wife, Jehane Rashed, also wept with relief. "I am happy but my happiness is incomplete until he gets acquitted." Rashed delivered a child while he was in detention.
Qatar-based Al-Jazeera called the court's decision "a small step in the right direction" that allows the journalists to spend time with their families.
"The focus though is still on the court reaching the correct verdict at the next hearing by dismissing this absurd case and releasing both these fine journalists unconditionally," the network said.
The Al-Jazeera English journalists were arrested in December 2013 in a raid on the hotel room they were using as an office as they covered protests by Islamists following the miltiary's ouster that year of President Mohammed Morsi. They were accused of working with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist group after the ouster, providing it a mouthpiece and faking footage to make it appear like Egypt was facing civil war.
A lower court sentenced them to at least seven years in prison after a trial that was widely denounced as a sham, with no hard evidence produced against them. A retrial was later ordered.
Fahmy and Mohammed were in court Thursday behind a soundproof glass cage for the first time — a recent feature in Egyptian courts, as authorities seek to limit the ability of defendants to protest or interrupt proceedings. The judge controls when the defendants can be heard through a microphone, and families and lawyers complained that it was hard to see the defendants inside the courtroom cage.
Greste was freed following a new decree granting el-Sissi the power to deport foreigners.
"Strange feeling to watch my cell mates and brothers Fahmy & Baher in court from the outside. My heart is in the cage with them," Greste tweeted before the session began.