Egypt’s top court began hearing an appeal Thursday by three jailed journalists of Al-Jazeera television as hopes for their release grew amid thawing relations between Cairo and Qatar, where it is based.
Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed of the broadcaster’s English service were jailed last December in a case that triggered global outrage.
Journalists waiting in the courthouse were not immediately allowed into the hearing but court officials said the session was under way.
The Al-Jazeera reporters, who authorities say lacked proper accreditation, were jailed in June on charges of spreading false information aiding the Muslim Brotherhood after the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The Brotherhood, which saw electoral success after the ouster of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has since been declared a “terrorist organisation” in Egypt.
Fahmy’s lawyer Negad al-Borai said ahead of Thursday’s session that all options were open to the court.
“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 on Monday completed a year in prison, could also be released 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.
At least 1,400 people died in the army’s crackdown on Islamist supporters, 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 Gulf heavyweight 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 to have 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,” Fahmy’s fiancee said.
The court will also examine the appeals of four Egyptian codefendants in the case, who were jailed for seven years on charges of 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.