Egyptian activist and journalist Esraa Abdelfattah, one of the symbols of the 2011 revolution, has been freed after nearly 22 months in pre-trial detention, lawyer Khaled Ali has said.
Ali, as well as friends of Abdelfattah, posted photographs online on Sunday of her being released from prison.
Abdelfattah was among several prominent journalists and activists released ahead of Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holidays in the Islamic calendar.
In 2008, Abdelfattah created an “April 6” Facebook page in support of striking workers and to call for political reforms, at the start of the mobilisation of mass protests that would lead to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak three years later.
Abdelfattah, 43, was arrested in October 2019 on charges of “spreading false news” and “collaborating with a terrorist group”.
Her detention sparked international condemnation, with the US calling it “scandalous”.
Abdelfattah, who was also previously jailed under Mubarak, walked free just hours after a surprise decision by the prosecution to release her.
She had opposed the Muslim Brotherhood when they took power in Egypt in 2012 and backed the 2013 protests that led to the removal of President Mohamed Morsi.
Under Egyptian law, pre-trial detention can be extended for up to two years.
Journalists, activists released
Egyptian authorities have in recent months released detainees ahead of major Muslim holidays. Several other journalists and activists were released on Sunday, two days ahead of Eid al-Adha.
Activist and lawyer Mahienour el-Masry, journalists Moataz Wadnan and Gamal el-Gammal, politician Abdel Nasser Ismail and journalist Mustafa el-Aasar were also freed, a lawyer representing them and a judicial source said. The charges against them are still pending, the lawyer added.
Wadnan was arrested in February 2018 following his interview with Egypt’s former top auditor Hesham Genena, who caused uproar after he said former military chief of staff Sami Annan possessed documents incriminating the country’s “leadership”.
El-Aasar was also arrested in February 2018. Both journalists face charges of joining a “terrorist” group, disseminating false news in separate cases.
The releases came after an outcry by rights advocates when prosecutors last week referred Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights advocate, to trial.
Bahgat said he was accused of insulting Egypt’s election authority, spreading false news alleging electoral fraud and using social media to commit crimes.
The accusations stem from a tweet Bahgat wrote last year blaming the election authority’s chairman for allegedly mishandling last year’s parliamentary vote, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, the organisation Bahgat founded 18 years ago.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Bahgat’s indictment and the detention and harassment of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics and journalists under el-Sisi.
“We’ve communicated to the Egyptian government our strong belief that individuals such as Hossam Bahgat should not be targeted for expressing their views peacefully,” Price said last week. “As a strategic partner we’ve raised these concerns with the Egyptian government, and we will continue to do so going forward.”
Also last week, an Egyptian court began the trial of six secular activists and journalists, including former politician Zyad el-Elaimy, Ali, the rights lawyer, said.
The six, who were arrested in 2019, face an array of charges including disturbing the public peace through disseminating false news about domestic affairs. The next court session is July 29, he said.
El-Elaimy and others were added by a court last year to a “terrorism list” for the next five years. The decision was upheld last week by the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest criminal court.
Among the six was jailed Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, who helped establish Egypt’s branch of the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel, known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS).
Shaath, the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, was detained in 2019 but has not been charged. His wife, a French citizen, was deported.
The Egyptian government has in recent years waged a widescale crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people, mostly Islamists, but also secular activists involved in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Journalists have also been targeted, with dozens imprisoned and some foreign journalists expelled. Egypt remains among the world’s top jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.