NEW: A U.S. diplomat cheers the pardons, touts need for freedoms of expression and the press
Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are pardoned nearly two years after their arrests
Fahmy, Mohamed and colleague Peter Greste were convicted of supporting banned Muslim Brotherhood
After months of imprisonment and uncertainty, two Al Jazeera journalists held in Egypt appear to have secured their freedom.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Wednesday pardoned Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, the government said, nearly two years after they and a colleague were arrested on accusations – condemned by activists – that they aired false news in support of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The two were among 100 prisoners that el-Sisi pardoned on the eve of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, which marks the yearly Hajj pilgrimage. It is traditionally a time of clemency.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was among those who applauded the pardons, singling out the release of women’s rights activists Sanaa Seif and Yara Sallam.
“Peaceful expression should never be a crime,” Power said in a statement. “Similarly, the freedom of the press to investigate, report and comment – even when its perspective is unpopular or disputed – is fundamental to any free society and essential to democratic development.”
Power was referring to journalists such as Fahmy and Mohamed, whose plights gained international attention after they and colleague Peter Greste were arrested in Egypt in December 2013. They were accused in part of aiding the Brotherhood, which was outlawed in Egypt after the army overthrew Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsy amid protests against his rule that year.
Specifically, they were accused of broadcasting footage – including video of clashes between police and pro-Morsy protesters – that portrayed the Egyptian regime falsely with the intention of bringing it down.
The three, who said they were just doing their jobs, were convicted last year, sparking an outcry among journalists and activists around the world.
They were granted a retrial this year, and Greste was deported to his home country, Australia. But their convictions were affirmed by a judge in August, and they were sentenced to three years in prison, with Greste sentenced in absentia.
Amnesty International and other observers have long held that Fahmy, Mohamed and Greste were pawns in a geopolitical dispute between Egypt and Qatar, the small Middle Eastern country that finances Al Jazeera.
Fahmy, a Candian-Egyptian and a former CNN producer, said he reluctantly renounced his Egyptian citizenship this year, hoping that el-Sisi would deport him instead of holding him for the retrial. Greste had been released under an Egyptian law allowing el-Sisi to deport foreign defendants.
But Fahmy’s deportation never came, keeping him in Egpyt with Mohamed, an Egyptian citizen, as the trio was reconvicted in August.
Al Jazeera Media Network’s acting director general Mostefa Souag condemned that verdict, saying it “defies logic and common sense” and followed a heavily politicized and unfair trial process.
Wednesday, by a contrast, was a time for celebration – as Fahmy made clear on his Twitter account.
“I am free! This time for real! Cops dropped me at CAC my old high school in my prison garb. Party Time! #FreeAJStaff,” the tweet reads.
CNN’s Ian Lee, Greg Botelho and journalist Sarah Sirgany contributed to this report.