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Egypt frees jailed Australian reporter Greste

February 1, 2015

Egypt freed and deported Australian journalist Peter Greste on Sunday after more than 400 days in detention, following global condemnation of his jailing on charges of backing the Muslim Brotherhood.

Greste, an award-winning correspondent for Al-Jazeera English, flew to Larnaca in Cyprus accompanied by his brother Michael after being released from Cairo’s Tora prison, the interior ministry and airport officials told AFP.

The reporter was detained along with two colleagues, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and an Egyptian producer, Baher Mohamed, in December 2013 and charged with aiding the blacklisted Brotherhood movement.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera welcomed Cairo’s decision and expressed hope its other two journalists would soon also be released.

“We’re pleased for Peter and his family that they are to be reunited,” Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al-Jazeera Media Network, said in a statement for the pan-Arab television channel.

“We will not rest until Baher and Mohamed also regain their freedom,” he said.

Fahmy’s relatives expect him to also be deported under a decree passed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that allows for the transfer of foreigners on trial.

It was not immediately clear when he would be released, however.

The arrest of the three journalists sparked a global outcry, with Washington and the United Nations leading calls for their release.

– ‘Immensely relieved’ –

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Sydney she had spoken to Greste after his release and that he had said “he was immensely relieved… and desperate to come home”.

Greste was in Cyprus where he had been met by consular officials.

Canada said Greste’s release was “positive” and that it remained “very hopeful” that Fahmy would also be freed soon.

The family of their Egyptian colleague Baher Mohamed pinned their hopes for his release on a presidential pardon or his acquittal on appeal.

“I congratulate Greste’s family on his release but I wish my brother Baher was with him,” said his brother Assem.

Australia and Canada have piled pressure on Egypt to release the two, and Sisi had repeatedly said he regretted they had not been deported soon after their arrest.

Their high-profile trial, at which Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohamed to 10, proved a public relations nightmare for Sisi, who has cracked down on Islamists since toppling president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

The verdict was overturned and a court in January ordered a retrial for the three.

“There is a presidential decision to deport Peter Greste to Australia,” an interior ministry official told AFP minutes before Greste flew out from Cairo.

There is no prospect of Greste or Fahmy facing trials at home, and Sisi’s deportation decree appears to have been formulated in a way that allows Egypt’s authorities to save face.

Amnesty International said Greste’s release should not overshadow the ongoing imprisonment of Fahmy and Mohamed.

“All three men are facing trumped up charges and were forced to endure a farcical trial marred by irregularities,” said Amnesty’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“Continuing to detain Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy is completely unjust and unwarranted.”

– Spat with Qatar –

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a media watchdog, welcomed Greste’s release and called on Sisi to pardon and free Fahmy and Mohamed “and the other journalists still behind bars for doing their work”.

Egyptian police arrested the journalists at the peak of a diplomatic row between Cairo and Qatar, which owns Al-Jazeera.

The broadcaster had been critical of the deadly crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement following the Islamist leader’s overthrow.

Qatar has since moved to mend ties with Egypt, and Al-Jazeera has closed its Arabic-language Egyptian affiliate which backed the Brotherhood.

The rapprochement reflected growing international acceptance of the crackdown on Egypt’s Islamist opposition and militants who have killed scores of police and soldiers since Morsi’s overthrow.

The crackdown, which has left at least 1,400 people dead, had tested Egypt’s ties with the United States, which temporarily froze part of its annual $1.3 billion military aid in 2013.

The Brotherhood, once Egypt’s largest political movement and the winner of several elections, denies resorting to violence.

Greste, who turned 49 in jail, worked for several news organisations including Reuters and the BBC before joining Al-Jazeera English.

He was the BBC’s Kabul correspondent in 1995, where he watched the Taliban emerge, and returned there after the US-led invasion in 2001.

From 2009, he was based in Nairobi from where he covered the Horn of Africa, winning the broadcasting industry’s prestigious Peabody Award in 2011.

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