Egypt’s prosecutor general has ordered the release of Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy on medical grounds, ending almost a year of imprisonment without charge.
A statement from the prosecutor’s office on Monday said Elshamy, who has been on hunger strike since January, would be set free due to “health conditions”. The statement said 13 other people would be freed on the same grounds.
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Elshamy has been on hunger strike for 147 days in protest of his prolonged imprisonment without charge. He was arrested on August 14 while covering the violent dispersal of a sit-in by supporters of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown by the army in July.
His lawyer, Shaanan Saaed, said he expected Elshamy to be released from jail on Tuesday.
“The decision confirms what Al Jazeera Media Network has said that Elshamy was just performing his journalistic duty,” said Saaed.
Commenting on the Egyptian prosecutor general’s statement, a spokesman for Al Jazeera said: “This is a relief rather than a cause for celebration. Abdullah has been through a terrible ordeal for over 10 months. He’ll want to spend time with his family and recuperate. When he’s ready, we look forward to seeing him back in action, doing the vital job of journalism that he so clearly loves.”
Al Jazeera English journalists Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy are still behind bars, and Al Jazeera continues to call for their freedom. A verdict in their case is due on June 23.
On June 4, Elshamy’s family visited his cell in a solitary confinement wing of the Scorpion maximum security prison, and were able to see him for just 20 minutes.
Elshamy’s health had failed dramatically, they said, adding that government statements that he had visited hospital were false. Rather, he was seen by a medical team in his cell on the instruction of prosecutors.
The family said authorities had covered a small window in his cell, further isolating him.
Also on Monday, Judge Mohamed Nagui Shehata announced he had reserved June 23 as the date to pronounce the verdict against the three other Al Jazeera journalists held, who are accused of reporting “false news” and aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Mohamed, Greste and Fahmy have now been held for 170 days on charges that Al Jazeera strongly denies.
Egyptian prosecutors have demanded the maximum penalty of 15-25 years in jail for all defendants, but defence lawyers and relatives expect the accused to be acquitted.
The prosecution has submitted as evidence items including a pop video by Gotye, a faked photograph, a BBC podcast and videos made outside of Egypt about an animal hospital.
|Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy have been detained in an Egyptian jail since December 29 [AP]|
The three are among 20 defendants in the trial, including 16 Egyptians charged with joining the Brotherhood, which was designated a “terrorist” organisation in December.
“Today was the final summation by the defence, again the weaknesses of the prosecution case has been exposed. On the balance of arguments, Al Jazeera hopes the judge will take into consideration the facts presented to him and acquit Peter, Baher and Mohamed of any wrong doing,” said Al Jazeera’s spokesman Osama Saeed.
“On June 23, the entire world will be watching Egypt to see whether they uphold the values of press freedom.”
Nine of the 20 defendants are in custody, with the rest being tried in absentia.
During the hearings Greste, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, and his co-defendants have denounced the trial as “unfair and political”, charging that the evidence against them had been “fabricated”.
Some of their co-defendants have claimed to have been tortured in prison. “For six months now we have been treated like terrorists with weapons,” Fahmy told the court on Monday.
“A television channel cannot destroy a country,” said Fahmy. The authorities have previously said that the accused were operating in Egypt without any valid media accreditation.