CAIRO (AP) — The Egyptian president on Wednesday pardoned two journalists for Al-Jazeera English, state media and the lawyer of one of the reporters said, a dramatic development in a case that was widely condemned by human rights groups and international organizations.
The two — Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian national Baher Mohammed — were expected to be released later in the day, along with dozens of human rights activists.
They were among a group of 100 people pardoned by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the eve of the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. The pardon also comes a day before el-Sissi is to travel to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
Fahmy's wife Marwa Omara said she learned of the news from a TV set that was on at the prison while she was visiting her husband.
"I was scared for his health from too much joy," she said, adding that the first thing they plan to do is have a large wedding party to celebrate their recent marriage.
The state-run MENA news agency said a third person from the Al-Jazeera case — which included multiple other defendants along with Australian journalist Peter Greste — was also pardoned but was not identified by name. Greste was deported earlier this year and could not immediately be reached for comment.
A tweet from Fahmy's account on Wednesday afternoon said: "Thank you to all the supporters sending us the news, we have heard and are very happy. AJ Staff is Free!"
"I don't know what to say. It is done. Thank God, thank God," said Fahmy's brother Adel, reached by The Associated Press by phone from Kuwait.
The three were sentenced to three years in prison last month for airing what a court described as "false news" and biased coverage.
Al-Jazeera did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP. The network said in a report on its English-language website Wednesday that it "continues to demand all charges and sentences against its journalists are dropped" despite plans to release the two journalists.
It noted that Greste and six other Al-Jazeera employees have been tried in absentia.
"Reminder that as well as Baher and Fahmy, there are 7 other AJ journos convicted in absentia whose lives have been affected," the network's communications head, Osama Saeed, tweeted alongside the hashtag #FreeAJStaff.
Prominent Egyptian activists Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif were also among those pardoned, according to MENA. Egyptian presidents usually pardon convicts for health or other reasons ahead of the Eid al-Adha, is one of the most important holidays in the Islamic calendar.
Fahmy's lawyer, Khaled Abu Bakr, confirmed the pardon for his client and said he hopes it will be "repeated with many others jailed."
"I was sure the president was going to issue such a decision. Mohammed is a professional and innocent journalist," Abu Bakr told the AP. "This decision will have positive impact on the media and international level."
On Tuesday in Australia, Greste attended the dedication of a war correspondents memorial at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke to him and vowed to press Egypt for a pardon for him and his colleagues, according to Turnbull's Facebook page.
The long-running trial of the three Al-Jazeera staff is entangled in the wider political conflict between Egypt and Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, following the Egyptian army's 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member.
The case began in December 2013, when Egyptian security forces raided the hotel suite used by Al-Jazeera at the time to report from Egypt.
The journalists began using the hotel as a base of operations after the Al-Jazeera English office near Tahrir Square was raided by police. Authorities arrested Fahmy, Greste and Mohammed, later charging them with allegedly being part of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organization, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.
The three men initially were convicted on June 23, 2014, with Greste and Fahmy sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohammed to 10 years for also being found with a spent bullet casing. That ruling was later overturned on appeal by Egypt's Court of Cassation, which said the initial proceedings were marred by violations of the defendants' rights, but a retrial was ordered, ending with last month's convictions.
A spokeswoman for Canada's foreign affairs department Rachna Mishra said Canada is "pleased" with the pardon and "will assist to facilitate his departure from Egypt. We look forward to Mr. Fahmy reuniting with his family and loved ones, and his return to Canada."
Fahmy gave up his Egyptian nationality during the trial in hopes of being deported to Canada.
The two activists Sallam and Seif were sentenced to three years in October with 21 others for staging a peaceful protest near the presidential palace. Their sentence was reduced to two years in December.
The charges against them stemmed from a controversial law prohibiting protests without government permission, a measure adopted a few months after Morsi's July 2013 overthrow. Since the law was put into effect in November 2013, street protests have dwindled in Egypt, with a few recent exceptions. Amnesty International had described their trial as a "show-trial based on scant and dubious evidence."
Seif hails from one of Egypt's most prominent activist families. Her brother, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, was sentenced to five years in prison earlier the year over an unauthorized but peaceful protest. Sallam is a prominent women's rights activist.
An emailed statement from the Egyptian president's office later Wednesday said the pardons were given to people "who have received final prison verdicts in cases related to breaking a protest law or infringing on the police forces' actions, in addition to a number of health-related and humanitarian cases."
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Rob Gillies in Toronto and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.