By Janie Ginsberg
Canadian-born Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian colleague Baher Mohammed were released on bail in a Cairo court on Thursday.
The pair have been held for more than a year in a Cairo prison on terror-related charges.
“We’re really pleased and really excited that those journalists will be able to be with their families, particularly Baher Mohamed, one of this children was born while he was in prison, and for Mohamed Fahmy, he hasn’t seen his fiance, and hasn’t been able to spend time with his family in over a year,” said Alexandra Zakreski, International programs co-ordinator for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).
The case is adjourned until a retrial on Feb. 23.
“We hope that justice will prevail, and that the court case will show that there’s no real evidence and they’ll throw their entire case out,” a spokesperson for Al Jazeera told Humber News.
But the journalists are not out of jail yet, “they’re still in prison until probably the weekend, but they’ll be out pending trial in the next couple of days,” said Tom Henheffer, executive director of CJFE.
Fahmy will be seeing the outside for the first time in over 400 days, said Ellin Bessner, national director of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) Toronto chapter.
“As a human being, he deserves that,” she said.
Exactly what caused these journalists to be released on bail is hard to say.
“I know that the Canadian ambassador met with the prosecutor yesterday, so it’s possible that had something to do with it,” said Zakreski.
An Al Jazeera spokesperson attributed the release to multiple factors.
“Evidence that was presented against Al Jazeera staff wasn’t strong, there were no links to the Muslim Brotherhood, basically the case had no legs to stand on,” he said.
The campaign to release the journalists itself helped a lot. The hashtag #FreeAJStaff on social media, coupled with events worldwide calling for the freedom of the detained journalists, were all factors that caused the Egyptians to reconsider their decisions, said the spokesperson.
“I don’t think there would be any movement to get them out of jail if it wasn’t for the huge grassroots movement,” said Henheffer. “There’s a huge grassroots movement and Egypt knows it. The eyes of the international community are on them, and this case has become a real embarrassment to them.”
Their economy is in trouble, Henheffer said. “They’re seeking outside investment from other countries, in order to get the support they feel they need to show that they actually have a functioning democracy.”
The Al Jazeera spokesperson said that Egypt realized this was a diplomatic nightmare. “We have people all the way from Barack Obama to the British prime minister, to the Australian government. Sad to say I wish the Canadian government was a bit stronger with its comments,” he said.
The Canadian government has been criticized by many since the journalists were arrested.
“There was definitely a lack of force behind the kind of statements they were making,” said CJFE’s Zakreski. “They really didn’t have the same sort of conviction as some of the other countries that were calling for their immediate release.”
But she said the pressure seems to have picked up in the past few months.
The CAJ has been asking Prime Minister Harper to get personally involved for over six months now, and the family is upset that he hasn’t actually called Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi since this began, said Bessner.
“I don’t think they had a damn thing to do with it,” said Henheffer.
“The Canadian government has been completely useless on this case right from the get go. It took them forever to even issue a statement, and when they finally did after Fahmy was in jail for months, it was watered down almost to the point where you could take it as a tacit approval of what the Egyptians are doing,” he said.
Henheffer also attributes the Canadian government’s abysmal reaction to the fact that Fahmy had a duel citizenship, which he no longer does.
“They don’t consider dual citizens to have the same values as citizens with one nationality. Duel citizens are every bit as much a citizen as everyone else, just maybe not in the Harper government’s eyes,” he said.
Also, the Canadian government sees Egypt as an important ally. “They don’t want to rock the boat, and their relationship with Egypt is more important to them than Mohamed Fahmy’s life,” said Henheffer.
It shouldn’t take a Twitter campaign to convince Harper to do something, said Bessner.
“This is a sovereign government, this is an elected government, this is supposedly the Arab Springs beacon of hope. So it’s not a question of dealing with shady terror cells who are not stable,” she said.
The events of today say a lot about the situation in Egypt, Henheffer said.
“It shows that the government is at least moving towards trying to have the image of a free press in Egypt. I think that there’s still a huge number of problems with their democratic process, and with the free press there,” he said. “They’re still requiring editors to sign a pledge of allegiance to the government, which basically makes having a free press impossible.”
The future of Fahmy is hard to know until the next hearing. “We’ll see what happens there, it could be that the charges are dismissed…but I think that probably at the end of the trial these guys are either found innocent, or the charges are dropped at some point,” said Henheffer.
The CAJ won’t stop working until he is out of prison for good with no criminal charges against him, said Bessner. “Journalism is not a crime, the charges were ridiculous, the whole trial was ridiculous. We want him out, now.”
But the Al Jazeera spokesperson said we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. “The fact is, and I think Peter Greste summed this up well, journalists have the tendency of reporting from the front line, what’s happened is that journalists have become the front line, to a certain degree, and press freedom is an essential part of any democracy…”
The events of today are a small step in the right direction. “If these guys are released that will be a big step in the right direction, and then hopefully the government will cease to have this crackdown on good journalists who are just trying to do their work,” Henheffer said.