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Egypt court to hear jailed Jazeera reporters’ appeal

January 1, 2015

Egypt’s top court hears an appeal Thursday by three jailed journalists of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television as hopes of their release grew amid diplomatic efforts to end a bitter row between Cairo and Doha.

Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed of the broadcaster’s English service were arrested last December in a case that triggered global outrage. Greste and Fahmy were each jailed for seven years, and Mohamed for 10.

The reporters, who authorities say lacked proper accreditation, were jailed in June for spreading false information aiding the Muslim Brotherhood after the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

The Brotherhood, which saw great electoral success after the fall of long-time leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has since been declared a “terrorist organisation” in Egypt.

Fahmy’s lawyer Negad al-Borai said all options were open to the court on Thursday.

“The Court of Cassation could order a retrial, issue a new verdict or acquit the defendants,” he said, adding that the appeal could even be dismissed.

The three, who Monday completed a year in prison, could also be freed on bail if a retrial is ordered, he said.

Fahmy’s fiancee, Marwa Omara, told AFP: “We hope they are freed on bail, that would be a positive step.”

Greste’s parents told Australia’s ABC they had “confidence in the integrity of the Egyptian appeals system” and that the journalists would soon be released.

– ‘Settling political scores’ –

The reporters were arrested when Egypt and Qatar were at loggerheads after Morsi was removed by then army chief, now president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi following mass protests against his one-year rule.

Ties worsened when Qatar, a key backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, repeatedly denounced Morsi’s overthrow, prompting Cairo to accuse Al-Jazeera of biased coverage of the ouster and the government crackdown that followed.

At least 1,400 people died as a result, mostly in August last year when police broke up two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo.

“Their arrest was a settling of political scores between Egypt and Qatar,” Borai said of the three journalists.

The bitter row now appears to be ending following mediation by Saudi Arabia, a key Sisi backer.

On December 20, Cairo told a Qatari envoy it was ready for a “new era” in relations with Doha, as the emirate offered its “full support” to Sisi.

Two days later, Al-Jazeera announced the surprise closure of its Egyptian channel, which had consistently criticised Cairo since Morsi’s ouster.

“It is quite likely the final result will be the release of the journalists. How and when that happens is another issue,” H.A. Hellyer of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington told AFP.

Sisi himself has said he would have preferred the journalists had been deported rather than tried.

In November, he issued a decree allowing him to deport foreigners sentenced to prison or on trial.

“We have filed a request to the prosecution to deport Mohamed to Canada in case a retrial is ordered,” said Fahmy’s fiancee.

The court will also examine appeals of four Egyptian co-defendants in the case, who were jailed for seven years for belonging to a terrorist organisation and for “damaging the image of Egypt”.

Eleven other defendants tried in absentia, including one Dutch and two British journalists, were given 10-year sentences.

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Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.