Cairo (dpa) – Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on Wednesday pardoned two Al Jazeera journalists, jailed for three years last month in a case that drew worldwide condemnation, as well as a number of imprisoned democracy activists.
The pardon, marking the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, is the first to include prominent figures caught up in Egypt’s crackdown on dissent since al-Sissi, then head of the armed forces, ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi two years ago.
Canadian-Egyptian Al Jazeera journalist Mohammed Fahmy and the network’s Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were among 100 prisoners covered by the pardon, according to a presidential statement.
The presidency said that the move came “in the framework of the president’s initiative to release groups of young people, which he launched in December last year.”
Thousands of people, mainly suspected Islamists but also including young democracy activists, have been jailed since al-Sissi deposed Morsi in the wake of mass protests against his increasingly unpopular rule.
Most have been accused of illegal demonstrations, membership of illegal organizations, or participation in riots and deadly attacks on the security forces.
According to data compiled by activists from the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, some 41,000 people were detained or prosecuted between the fall of Morsi and May last year.
Among those to be freed are two prominent young female activists, Sanaa Seif and Yara Salam, who were jailed last year under a law that effectively bans protests without prior police approval.
Fahmy, Mohammed and Australian journalist Peter Greste were arrested in late 2013 and charged with publishing false news and collaborating with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned as a terrorist organization.
They were sentenced to seven years imprisonment on those charges in an initial trial last year. Observers at the trial said that no concrete evidence in support of the allegations had been heard in court sessions open to the press.
The convictions were overturned on appeal and the journalists were jailed for three years after a retrial that concluded last month.
Greste was released and deported on al-Sissi’s orders in February before the retrial started.
Fahmy gave up his Egyptian citizenship in order to qualify for deportation like Greste, saying a senior security official had urged him to do so to save the country embarrassment, but was not released.
Human rights organizations and press freedom groups had called for the release of the journalists.
The case clearly embarrassed Egyptian authorities, with al-Sissi publicly saying that it would have been better if the journalists had been deported instead of being put on trial.
Three Egyptian students were jailed alongside the three journalists. It was not clear whether they were included in the pardons.
One of the three, Suhaib Saad, is currently facing terrorism charges in a military court.
Family members said he and two friends disappeared in June after going for dinner to a Cairo restaurant, and turned up two weeks later in prison after, they claim, brutal interrogation by security agents.
The pardons come less than a month before the start of parliamentary elections, which the government says mark the final stage in a process of restoring democracy after alleged abuses under Morsi’s one-year rule.
It is far from clear that they herald an end to the Egyptian government’s stern measures against dissidents. On Tuesday evening, the April 6 Youth Movement, which played a key role in the 2011 revolution against long-time dictator Hosny Mubarak, said its coordinator Amr Ali had been arrested.
Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona, writing on her Facebook page, condemned the government despite the releases.
“For 100 or 200 people to go free while the jails are full of thousands of victims of injustice, some of them children … this is not justice,” she wrote.
A third sibling, democracy activist and Egyptian social media pioneer Alaa Abdel-Fattah, is currently serving a five-year sentence for another protest.
Their father, veteran human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam, died last year while both Alaa and Sanaa were in jail.