CAIRO (AP) — A reporter for Al-Jazeera English was released from an Egyptian prison and deported Sunday after more than a year behind bars, but his two Egyptian colleagues remained jailed in a case widely condemned as a sham by human-rights groups.
Australian Peter Greste was whisked away on a flight to Cyprus. His release came as a welcome surprise to fellow reporters and activists who spent months pressing for his freedom.
But rights groups and Greste’s Qatar-based broadcaster called on Egypt to release the other two defendants in the case, which has hindered the country’s international standing as it struggles to recover from the political unrest and economic collapse caused by the 2011 uprising.
Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed were arrested in December 2013 over their coverage of the violent crackdown on conservative protests following the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi.
Egyptian authorities accused them of providing a platform for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, now declared a terrorist organisation. But authorities provided no concrete evidence. The journalists and their supporters insist they were doing their jobs during a time of violent upheaval.
The three were widely seen as having been caught up in a regional power struggle between Egypt and Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera and had been a strong backer of Morsi. Greste’s release follows a thawing of ties between Cairo and Doha.
Greste was in a state of disbelief about his freedom and deeply relieved — but still worried about his imprisoned friends, said his brother, Andrew Greste.
“His excitement is tempered and restrained and will be until those guys are free,” Andrew Greste said at the news conference in the Australian city of Brisbane. “He won’t give up until Baher and Mohammed are out of there.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who had been negotiating for Greste’s release, said Monday that the 49-year-old journalist had told her by telephone from Egypt that he was eager to return to his family in Brisbane after spending 400 days in custody.
“He was immensely relieved and he was desperate to come home to Australia and reunite with his family,” Bishop told reporters in Sydney. “From my discussion with him, he was very keen to be back on a beach and lying in the sun in Australia.”
Greste had been given short notice that he was being released “unconditionally,” Bishop said.
“We moved as fast as we could to make arrangements for his immediate departure,” she said.
An Egyptian prison official and the nation’s official news agency said Greste was released following a presidential “approval”. The official and an Interior Ministry statement said he was released under a new deportation law passed last year. The law appeared to have been tailored to the Al-Jazeera case.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media. There was no word on the fate of the other two defendants.
Acting Al-Jazeera Director General Mostefa Souag said the Qatar-based network “will not rest until Baher and Mohamed also regain their freedom.”
Greste, 49, had only been in Egypt for a few weeks when he was detained. Fahmy had taken up his post as an acting bureau chief only a couple of months before his arrest.
After freelancing in Britain, Greste joined the BBC as its Afghanistan correspondent in 1995. The following year, he covered Yugoslavia for Reuters before returning to the BBC.
He spent more than a decade with the British broadcaster, reporting from across Latin America, the Middle East and Africa before joining Al-Jazeera in 2011 — the year he won a prestigious Peabody Award for a BBC report on Somalia. Greste’s hometown is Brisbane, Australia, but he now lives in Nairobi.
Fahmy, 40, has reported for CNN and the New York Times. He had to put off his marriage plans because of the trial.
Mohammed’s wife gave birth to a child while he was in prison. He will not benefit from the deportation law because he does not have another nationality. His wife, Jehane, said she couldn’t imagine that his colleagues would be set free while he languishes in jail.
“They should all be set free. It is the same case,” she told The Associated Press. “Or is this about foreigners and Egyptians?”