Egypt deported Al-Jazeera reporter Peter Greste to Australia Sunday after holding him for more than 400 days despite global condemnation of his jailing on charges of backing the Muslim Brotherhood.
Greste departed on a flight to Larnaca in Cyprus soon after his release from Cairo’s Tora prison, interior ministry and airport officials told AFP.
Airport sources at Larnaca confirmed Greste had arrived on an EgyptAir flight accompanied by his brother Michael.
The Al-Jazeera English 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.
The Qatar-based channel welcomed Cairo’s decision and expressed the hope that its other two journalists would 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 also expect him to 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.
– Public relations nightmare –
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 on Sunday, minutes before Greste flew out from Cairo.
Greste and Fahmy are eligible for deportation under a recent law that stipulates their trial in their home countries.
However, there is no prospect of Greste or Fahmy facing trials at home, and Sisi’s 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.
The two “must not be forgotten as their colleague Peter Greste is deported from Egypt,” the rights group said in a statement.
“All three men are facing trumped up charges and were forced to endure a farcical trial marred by irregularities,” Amnesty’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui was quoted as saying.
– Diplomatic spat with Qatar –
“Continuing to detain Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy is completely unjust and unwarranted.”
Media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists 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”.
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.