President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pardoned two imprisoned journalists from the Al Jazeera English news network on Wednesday, as well as dozens of other political prisoners, effectively voiding a raft of widely criticized convictions handed down by Egypt’s courts.
The pardoning of the journalists, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and of prominent leftist activists arrested at protests, provided their families with a measure of relief and stanched a source of international criticism of Mr. Sisi’s government a day before he was scheduled to fly to New York for a United Nations General Assembly gathering.
The pardons appeared to be part of a customary prisoner release on the eve of the Eid al-Adha holiday. In a statement, Mr. Sisi’s office said 100 people had been pardoned for humanitarian and health reasons, and “in line with the president’s initiative last December to release detained youth.”
Amid the celebrations, Mr. Sisi’s willingness to discard the convictions with the stroke of a pen revived questions about why the defendants had been charged at all. The pardons also raised new doubts about the ability of Egypt’s judiciary to fairly settle the cases of thousands of other people also imprisoned on political charges. Since Mr. Sisi led the military takeover of the government more than two years ago, the authorities have systematically rounded up perceived opponents, including Islamists and secular-leaning activists, filling Egypt’s jails.
“While these pardons come as a great relief, it is ludicrous that some of these people were ever behind bars in the first place,” Amnesty International said in a statement after the decree.
Mr. Fahmy, Mr. Mohamed and a third Al Jazeera colleague, Peter Greste, were arrested in December 2013 in the room they had used as an office at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, and charged with broadcasting false news. They were also accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that Mr. Sisi shunted from power. Mr. Greste was deported in February.
Their prosecution drew international attention because Mr. Fahmy, a Canadian, and Mr. Greste, an Australian, were foreign citizens. All three had at one time or another worked for large international news agencies.
But prosecutors never presented any evidence that the journalists had belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or that they had been engaged in anything other than reporting the news. Rather, their arrests were seen as part of a wider crackdown on free speech and dissent by the military-backed government, as well as a result of Egypt’s feud with Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera and has been the main international supporter of the Brotherhood.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Kareem Fahim