CAIRO: Egypt’s top court on Thursday ordered a retrial of three Al-Jazeera reporters whose imprisonment on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood triggered global outrage, but kept them in custody pending a new hearing.
Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed of the broadcaster’s English service were detained in December 2013 for spreading false information.
Greste and Fahmy each got seven years, and Mohamed was jailed for 10.
“The Court of Cassation has accepted their appeal and ordered a retrial,” Greste’s defense lawyer Amr Al-Deeb said.
The defendants were not at the hearing, which lasted just 30 minutes.
Hopes for the journalists’ release have grown following a thaw in diplomatic relations between Cairo and Qatar, where their employer is based.
“I hope the reconciliation efforts between Egypt and Qatar continue for the sake of my brother and his colleagues who are paying the price of a political crisis,” Fahmy’s brother Adel told reporters.
Both the defense and the prosecution had requested a retrial.
Mohamed’s wife Jihan welcomed the retrial as a “small but positive step towards my husband being freed.”
“This past year has been the worst year of me and my children’s lives,” she added.
Al-Jazeera called for the swift release of its employees.
Acting director general Mostafa Souag said the journalists had been “unjustly imprisoned.”
“Their arrest was political, the sentencing was political and their being kept in prison is, for us, political,” he said.
The reporters, who authorities say lacked proper accreditation, were sentenced in June for aiding the Muslim Brotherhood after the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The Brotherhood, which saw electoral success after the overthrow of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has since been declared a “terrorist organization” in Egypt.
Analysts said the retrial was a step towards the release of the journalists.
“The question is now about time, how quickly will the retrial be conducted,” H.A. Hellyer of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington told Agence France-Presse.
“It might not be a full acquittal. There are other options, with sentences ranging from time served to suspended sentences. But it is quite likely it will end in their release,” he added.
A date for the retrial has not yet been announced.
Defense lawyer Shabaan Saeed said the retrial could begin soon as “the government wants to end the case as fast as possible.”
Amnesty International described the detention of the three men, whom it considers to be prisoners of conscience, as “unjust” and said their trial was a “complete farce.”
“Their only crime was to challenge the political narrative of the authorities,” Amnesty regional deputy director Hassiba Hadjsahraoui said.
The reporters were arrested when Egypt and Qatar were at loggerheads after Morsi was removed by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president, following mass protests against his one-year rule.
entia, including one Dutch and two British journalists, had been sentenced to 10 years.
They would be retried only if they surrendered to the authorities.