Egypt frees Al Jazeera journalist, but its jails still groan with political prisoners

Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy are lucky to hold foreign passports. Thousands of others aren't so lucky.

Heba Elkholy, El Shorouk/File/AP
In this March 2014 file photo, Al-Jazeera English producer Baher Mohamed, left, Canadian-Egyptian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, center, and correspondent Peter Greste, right, appeared in court along with several other defendants during their trial on terror charges, in Cairo, Egypt. Mr. Greste was deported, and Mr. Fahmy is expected to be released soon. But Mr. Mohamed, who is Egyptian, may languish in prison.

Australian journalist Peter Greste returned home on Sunday after being held 400 days in an Egyptian prison for crimes he didn't commit. His Al Jazeera colleague, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, may soon be released, having renounced his Egyptian citizenship as the price of his freedom.

Mr. Greste was deported on the orders of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and his conviction was not vacated. Outgoing Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said Mr. Fahmy's release was "imminent" yesterday. 

But while the release of two nationals from close US allies will make ongoing US economic and military aid to Egypt more comfortable – President Barack Obama has requested $1.3 billion for Egypt's military in the next budget – the country is still in the middle of one of its most sustained periods of political repression for decades. (An earlier version of this story had US military support to Egypt at "more than $1.1 billion.")

Since the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, his military and political establishment have fought hard and largely successfully to stuff the genie of political change back in the bottle. Show trials and extended pre-trial detention have been a large part of that effort.

As Greste winged home to Australia, an Egyptian court sentenced 183 people to death, with the blessing of the grand mufti of the highly influential Al Azhar mosque, for allegedly participating in the murder of 11 police officers at the Kerdassa police station just outside Cairo in August 2013. The condemned were mostly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and during trial the defense complained that they were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses brought by the government.

And while Greste and Fahmy may be free, their colleague Baher Mohamed, who lacks the protection of a foreign passport, is likely to languish in prison for a long time yet.

At least one American remains in an Egyptian prison on political charges. Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American whose father belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested about a year and a half ago, shortly after the government forcibly cleared two Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo. The August 2013 crackdown resulted in the deaths of more than 800 protesters, in what's come to be known as the Rabaa massacre. The attack on the Kerdassa police station followed amid rioting that broke out. No cops or government officials have been held accountable for the civilian deaths.

Mr. Soltan's supporters say he's been on a hunger strike for months, and he's spent nearly 60 days in solitary confinement. He has not yet been tried on charges of disseminating "false information to destabilize" Egypt and financing terrorism. His family say his health is failing and they worry he will die in prison.

Soltan's case has garnered less international attention than those of the jailed reporters – as have the cases of thousands of others. Human Rights Watch says scores of prisoners died last year due to torture, overcrowding, or denial of medical care, and cites the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights as finding that 41,000 people have been detained since the July 2013 coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and brought the military to power.

The Al Jazeera pair were jailed in December 2013, along with Mr. Mohamed, and convicted on terrorism charges in a trial that had more than a whiff of 17th century Salem, Mass. Ahead of the trial the prosecution aired a 22-minute video on a pro-regime network of the what they described as the lair of the "Marriott Cell" – the hotel where the Al Jazeera reporters were staying when they were arrested on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and abetting terrorism. 

To an ominous soundtrack – the music was stolen from the comic book movie "Thor: The Dark World" – the camera pans over computers, cameras, notebooks, and ethernet cable. The short film was designed to feed the xenophobic and anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria of post-coup Egypt.

The Egyptian press, by any measure, is less free today than it even was in the final years under Mubarak, and many working reporters have turned stridently pro-government. An example of that was provided yesterday by Diaa Rashwan, the head of the semi-official Journalists Syndicate.

He called on reporters to inform the authorities of colleagues who "incite" against the Army and police, and especially encouraged reports to be made against outlets owned by Qatar, the country that owns Al Jazeera. 

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