Wednesday’s pardon of 100 prisoners by Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is drawing mixed reactions from around the world, even as it focuses renewed attention on the controversial anti-terrorism laws under which some of the released prisoners had been held.
The human rights group Amnesty International hailed the announcement of the prisoner release as “welcome news” but also sharply criticised al-Sisi’s government for having an “appalling human rights record”.
In a statement released on the group’s website, Said Boumedouha, the organisation’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, said that “while these pardons come as a great relief, it is ludicrous that some of these people were ever behind bars in the first place. Hundreds remain behind bars for protesting or because of their journalistic work”.
Boumedouha urged the Egyptian authorities to release all those who had been “jailed for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association or because of their journalistic or human rights”.
Boumedouha’s statement, which seems to have been made in direct reference to the much-contested 2015 protest law, which obliges protesters to submit a three-day notice before holding any demonstrations, also characterised the pardoned as “a tiny fraction of the hundreds of people across the country who have been arbitrarily arrested, and unlawfully detained”.
The government of Canada welcomed the release of one of its citizens, Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Fahmy, and pledged to continue its efforts in facilitating his departure from Egypt. Fahmy was being held after he was sentenced to a three-year prison term. According to the state-run media outlet Al-Ahram, the charges against him included his alleged membership in “an outlawed group – the Muslim Brotherhood – obstructing governmental institutions and law, attacking the personal liberty of citizens, and harming national unity and social peace”.
Al-Ahram also reported the release of another of Fahmy’s co-defendant, Egyptian Baher Mohamed, although the fate of a third defendant in the case, Australian Peter Greste could not be immediately clarified.
At the time of his trial, Greste had already been deported by Egyptian authorities, but was nevertheless sentenced to a three-year prison sentence in absentia. As of press time, media reports coming out of Australia seemed to suggest that Greste faced the possibility of being arrested and returned to Cairo if he crossed an international border. While such an arrest appears to be a remote possibility, it would certainly complicate his life if there is indeed an international warrant of arrest issued by the Egyptian government against him.
The high-profile trial and subsequent release of the three journalists is also likely to increase pressure on Al-Sisi’s government to relax its stringent press regulations, which are anchored in its newly enacted anti-terror laws.
The first draft of the law, which called for two years in prison for journalists contradicting official statements regarding terrorist attacks, was revised in July of this year after a wave of protests by members of the Egyptian media, and was instead replaced with a harsh fine.
In June, the media watch group Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Egyptian authorities were holding “at least 18 journalists behind bars in relation for (sic) their reporting, the highest in the country since CPJ began recording data on imprisoned journalists in 1990”.
Last year, US Secretary of State John Kerry called the convictions of the three journalists a “chilling and draconian” setback to Egypt’s transition, adding that he had spoken “with Foreign Minister Shoukry again today to make very clear our deep concerns about these convictions and sentences”.
It could not be immediately established whether the release of the Al Jazeera journalists and the other detainees was the result of pressure on the Egyptian government, although the news coincides with Al-Sisi’s departure for New York, where he will attend the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, and also comes after Wednesday’s announcement of the purchase of two French Mistral helicopter carriers.
Duke Omara is an American journalist and graduate student in international relations at the American University in Cairo