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Al Jazeera Journalists, Held In Egypt For More Than A Year, Given Retrial

01/01/2015 16:45 GMT | Updated 01/01/2015 17:00 GMT

More than a year after their arrest, three Al-Jazeera journalists have won the right to a retrial after they were jailed in what was condemned as a politicised attempt to silence their reporting.

An Egyptian appeals court ordered the retrial of Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed, a ruling that their lawyers hoped was a step toward ending their imprisonment.

The three will remain behind bars at least until the retrial begins. But their lawyers expressed cautious optimism that a quick retrial will lead to the exoneration.

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Their case triggered hashtags of support #freeAJstaff and #journalismisnotacrime to circulate on social media, with prominent journalists posing with tape over their mouths to protest what they saw as censorship.

Mr Fahmy and Mr Greste were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mr Mohammed got 10 years — three more because he was found with a spent bullet casing, which brought him an added possession of ammunition charge.

"These journalists should not be caught in the middle of this remote conflict between two nations," Adel Fahmy, Mohammed Fahmy's brother, said after the retrial ruling.

The three journalists did not attend hearing at the Court of Cassation, which lasted less than 30 minutes.

Their families afterward expressed dismay that the court did not immediately order their release on bail, but legal experts said the Cassation Court does not have the authority to do so, only the judge in the retrial.

The verdict was "not as good as we hoped," said Lois Greste, Peter Greste's mother.

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Mr Greste's lawyer, Amr el-Dib, hailed the ruling.

"This is a very good and optimistic decision. It will give them a second round of litigation," he said. "Hopefully when we go to the retrial, we can defend the defendants and present adequate support to try to set them free."

The journalists have argued they were targeted because of the Egyptian government's political fight with Qatar, the Gulf nation that finances the Al-Jazeera news network.

The two countries have been at odds over Qatar's support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egyptian authorities have cracked down on ferociously since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.

Hopes have been raised that Egypt's government now intends to free the men because of a recent public reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar.

al jazeera

(Left to right) Baher Mohamed, Mohammed Fahmy and Peter Greste appear at an earlier hearing

A retrial would give a way out of the case for Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who in the past has largely turned aside calls for him to pardon the three by insisting he will not interfere in the judiciary. A retrial would also allow Cairo to continue to use the case as a bargaining chip with Qatar.

"The way the second trial is managed will mirror the potential political will," said leading rights advocate Bahy Eddin Hassan who is also the head of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "This is in the context of overwhelming politicization of judicial system in Egypt."

A spokesman for Al-Jazeera, Osama Saeed, called on Egypt's president to pardon the three or, failing that, urged that the retrial be swift.

"Now make that retrial expedited, swift and fast with the right judgment in the end that the guys are released," he said.

Mr Fahmy and Mr Greste were arrested in a December 2013 raid, two on the hotel room they were using as an office, while covering the wave of protests by Morsi's Islamist supporters, while Mr Mohammed was taken from his home.

After their arrest, the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. The three were charged with helping terrorists by acting as the Brotherhood's mouthpiece and falsifying news to destabilise Egypt.

In their initial trial, prosecutors presented no concrete evidence, only samples of the team's news reports on protests, with no proof of falsification or of a connection to the Brotherhood.