Nearly two years after his arrest in Egypt on widely denounced terrorism charges, Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy walked out of prison a free man Wednesday following a presidential pardon.
Fahmy and his colleague and co-accused Baher Mohamed were among 100 people — including dozens of prominent human rights activists — pardoned by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
“I am free! This time for real! Cops dropped me at CAC my old high school in my prison garb. Party Time! .FreeAJStaff” Fahmy tweeted moments after his release.
Speaking later to reporters, 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,” he said. “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.”
His wife, Marwa Omara, said she was visiting Fahmy in prison when she learned the news of his pardon from a TV set that was on.
“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.
Fahmy’s lawyer said she was delighted that he was finally free.
“It has been a long ordeal, and we are grateful to President Sissi for exercising his power to pardon the two journalists,” Amal Clooney said in a statement.
“This is a historic day in Egypt where the government has finally corrected a long-standing injustice, and set two innocent men free”.
An emailed statement from the Egyptian president’s office 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.”
The pardon also came a day before el-Sissi is to travel to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
Fahmy was given a three-year sentence last month after his second trial — an outcome that shocked international observers.
The 41-year-old’s troubles began in December 2013 when he was working as the Cairo bureau chief for Qatar-based satellite news broadcaster Al Jazeera English.
He and two colleagues were abruptly arrested and charged with a slew of offences, including supporting a banned organization and with fabricating footage to undermine the country’s national security.
The trio maintained their innocence throughout, saying they were just doing their jobs, but after a trial that was internationally decried as a sham, they were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms.
An appeal of their convictions resulted in a second trial, although one of them, Australian Peter Greste, was abruptly deported under a law which allows for the deportation of foreign nationals convicted of crimes.
Fahmy gave up his Egyptian citizenship while behind bars in the hopes that he could follow the same path, but that didn’t happen.
He and his other colleague, Egyptian Baher Mohamed, were, however, granted bail during their retrial, which culminated in last month’s surprising verdict.
Following the verdict, Ottawa had formally asked Egypt’s president to pardon Fahmy or allow his deportation to Canada.
The federal government said it welcomed Wednesday’s developments.
“Canada is pleased that Egyptian President el-Sisi has granted Mr. Fahmy a pardon,” said a spokeswoman with the department of foreign affairs. “We look forward to Mr. Fahmy reuniting with his family and loved ones, and his return to Canada.”
The court that convicted Fahmy said he and his colleagues were, by default, members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group — considered a terrorist organization by Egypt — because their employer, Al Jazeera, “dedicated its broadcasting to the service and support of the Muslim Brotherhood faction.”
Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar, which has had a tense relationship with Egypt ever since the Egyptian military ousted the country’s former president Mohamed Morsi amid massive protests. Qatar is a strong backer of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Jazeera did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but the network said in a report on its English-language website that it “continues to demand all charges and sentences against its journalists are dropped” despite plans to release the two journalists.
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.”
Fahmy moved to Canada with his family in 1991, living in Montreal and Vancouver for years before eventually moving abroad for work, which included covering stories for the New York Times and CNN.
Once he leaves Egypt, Fahmy has said he plans to take up a position as an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of journalism in Vancouver. He is also writing a book about his experiences.