Updated at 9:45am on Sept. 24 to include Fahmy’s tweet announcing his release from custody and Al Jazeera’s reaction.
Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, two Al Jazeera English journalists jailed in Egypt on charges of broadcasting “false news,” have received a presidential pardon, according to state media.
— Egypt MFA Spokesperson (@MfaEgypt) September 23, 2015
The decision comes ahead of Eid Al Adha and is a spot of good news for the news network, which is expected to lay off hundreds of employees this month in preparation for budget cuts in January.
On Wednesday, Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi reportedly released a list of 100 people he was pardoning.
Several hours after the news broke, Fahmy tweeted that he had been released from custody:
I am free! This time for real! Cops dropped me at CAC my old high school in my prison garb. Party Time! #FreeAJStaff
— Mohamed Fahmy (@MFFahmy11) September 23, 2015
Fahmy and Mohamed, along with their Al Jazeera colleague, Peter Greste, were sentenced to a three-year prison sentence in late August during a retrial of their original conviction.
After the verdict was read out last month, Fahmy and Mohamed – who had been on bail ahead of the verdict after spending 410 days in detention – were sent back to Tora Prison in southern Cairo.
Australian Greste had previously been deported from Egypt and was not in the courtroom to hear the verdict.
Fahmy, who is a Canadian national, had renounced his Egyptian citizenship in the hope that he would also be deported.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Fahmy’s brother Adel said he was overjoyed with the news:
“We are just speechless,” he said. “It’s really the best news that we can ever receive . . . I cannot describe how we feel. It’s the best day for us in a long, long time and such a relief for the nightmare to be over.”
While most observers cheered the verdict on social media, others continued to denounce the Egyptian government for putting the Fahmy, Mohamed and their colleagues through the ordeal in the first place:
Reminder that as well as Baher and Fahmy, there are 7 other AJ journos convicted in absentia whose lives have been affected #FreeAJStaff
— Osama Bhutta (@OsamaSBhutta) September 23, 2015
In a statement welcoming the release of Fahmy and Mohammad,Mostefa Souag – Al Jazeera’s acting director general – also urged Egypt to clear the Al Jazeera journalists tried in absentia:
“It is hard to celebrate though as this whole episode should not have happened in the first place. They’ve lost nearly two years of their lives when they were guilty of nothing except journalism,” Souag said.
“The case for seven journalists convicted in absentia continues. They may not be behind bars, but their families and careers have been affected immeasurably. We urge the Egyptian authorities to quash their cases and let them too get on with their lives.”
Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed were arrested in December 2013 in their Cairo hotel room during a period of heightened tensions between Egypt and Qatar.
Relations were frayed in large part because of the Gulf state’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the military in mid-2013.
The Al Jazeera journalists were convicted in June of spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
An appeal judge upheld their conviction, but reduced their sentence.
Judge Hassan Farid ruled that the men “were not journalists” because they had not registered with the country’s journalist “syndicate.” He also said the men brought equipment into the country without the approval of security officials, had broadcast “false news” on Al Jazeera and used a hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.
That reasoning carried little weight among the journalists’ supporters.
Following the August verdict, Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al Jazeera English, denounced the judge’s decision and said there had been no evidence that they had “in any way” fabricated news, according to the court’s own technical committee.
He also said that the team did not need a broadcasting licence, as they were not broadcasting in Egypt to Egyptians. And he attacked the judge’s suggestion that the three were not journalists, saying:
“They emphatically are journalists. The court cannot wish away the fact that these three men don’t have a longstanding track record and a distinguished body of work. They were journalists and they are journalists.”
Qatar-funded Al Jazeera has, like many large organizations in Qatar, been instructed to tighten its belt and cut excess spending in the past two years.
Today, the Guardian said that 800 to 1,000 employees – or roughly one-quarter of the network’s total workforce – were expected to lose their jobs as Qatar continues to trim back government expenses amid falling global oil prices.
However, one Al Jazeera employee told Doha News that the figure was closer to 600 employees.
A spokesman has yet not returned a request for comment, and more information is expected to be released after the Eid holiday.