Egypt released two journalists for Al-Jazeera English TV from prison after a presidential pardon on Wednesday, a dramatic development in a case that has been widely condemned by human rights groups and international organizations.
The two – Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian national Baher Mohammed – were originally arrested in December 2013 and sentenced to three years in prison last month for airing what a court here described as "false news" and biased coverage.
Fahmy and Mohammed were released just hours after the pardon was announced, and dropped off by police in a Cairo suburb. It was not immediately clear if all other of a total of 100 prisoners pardoned by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi were also freed Wednesday.
Fahmy told The Associated Press that he and his colleague Baher Mohammed were taken by surprise by the pardon. Speaking shortly after his release, Fahmy said he still "can't believe it."
"We have not digested the fact that we are free, we don't have to worry about anything else," said Fahmy. "Our families have suffered so much since the beginning of this trial and we're very happy that el-Sissi took this action and released us."
El-Sissi's pardon of 100 prisoners, including dozens of human rights activists, came on the eve of the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and a day before the Egyptian president is to travel to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
"To be honest, I anticipated that el-Sissi may release some prisoners, knowing that he's going to the United Nations," said Fahmy. "But I didn't think our names would be included."
"Where are we going to start? What are we going to do? We're going to travel the world, we're going to celebrate, we're going to party," he added.
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. Standing at his side following his release, Omara said the "bad dream" is over and "we will have to start our life again."
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 was tried in absentia, along with six other Al-Jazeera employees.
In comments to Al-Jazeera English, Greste did not mention whether he was also included in the pardon but said, "we have to keep in mind that this is not over until everyone who was caught up in this case has gone 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.
Al-Jazeera said in a statement that it was "delighted for them both" and added, "it is hard to celebrate though as this whole episode should not have happened in the first place."
Al-Jazeera Media Network's acting director-general, Mostefa 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." The statement called on Egypt to quash their cases.
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 Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holidays in the Islamic calendar.
Fahmy's lawyer, Khaled Abu Bakr said he hopes the pardons will be "repeated with many others jailed" in Egypt.
"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, Greste attended the dedication of a war correspondents memorial at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke to him there 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 Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the journalist's pardons.
"But this is just a first step," the CPJ statement said. "Egypt can begin tackling its shameful record of press freedom by releasing all journalists imprisoned for their work in the country."
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, Hassan Abdallah in Cairo, Rob Gillies in Toronto, and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.