The Egyptian authorities have deported an Australian television journalist jailed for more than a year on politicized charges about the content of his work.
The Australian, Peter Greste, is one of three journalists for Al Jazeera’s English-language affiliate jailed on allegations of reporting false news in a conspiracy with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the country. The other two, along with at least nine other journalists, remain in prison.
Egypt has a long history of jailing critical or dissenting Egyptian journalists. But its authorities have generally left correspondents who work for international news organizations alone. Mr. Greste had left the BBC to join Al Jazeera’s English-language network shortly before his arrest.
His incarceration sent a tremor of anxiety through the international news media here, and some Egyptian journalists said privately that it appeared intended to convey a warning.
Many analysts viewed the case as an attempt to punish Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera. Qatar nurtured close ties to President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood before he was ousted in a 2013 military takeover by the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Al Jazeera’s Arabic networks, most notably a dedicated Egyptian channel, provided consistently sympathetic coverage of the Brotherhood and caustic coverage of Mr. Sisi’s takeover.
A recent decision by Qatar to shut down Al Jazeera’s Egyptian channel may have helped clear the way for Mr. Greste’s release. The decision was part of a reconciliation meeting between Qatar and Egypt brokered by Saudi Arabia, and observers close to the Egyptian authorities immediately began speculating about a possible release of the Al Jazeera journalists. Yet Egypt did not disclose its specific reasons for the release or its timing.
The official state news agency said Mr. Sisi had approved the release under a decree he issued a few months ago giving himself the power to deport convicted prisoners who are citizens of other nations. (With no Parliament at the moment, Mr. Sisi rules by decree.)
Another of the jailed Al Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, is a dual citizen of Egypt and Canada who previously worked as a producer for CNN. He has also worked as a reporting assistant for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Egyptian officials said they expected that he would soon be deported to Canada. But he is expected to give up his Egyptian citizenship to obtain his release.
“Egyptian citizenship vs. freedom: take your pick?” Mr. Fahmy wrote from his detention in a message posted on Twitter.
The third jailed Al Jazeera journalist, Baher Mohamed, previously worked for the Japanese media company Asahi Shimbun. He is an Egyptian citizen, so he has no recourse under the new law allowing deportation.
All three were arrested at the end of 2013 on the same charges of conspiring with the Brotherhood to spread false news, and prosecutors presented no public evidence to support the accusations before the journalists were convicted. Mr. Greste and Mr. Fahmy were each sentenced to seven years in prison, and Mr. Mohamed was given 10 years because a used bullet casing was found in his possession. His lawyer said he had picked it up at the scene of a protest.
Egypt has faced heavy criticism from Western leaders, rights groups and the international media over the case, and Mr. Sisi has suggested that deporting the foreigners might have been a preferable way to handle their sentencing from the start.
The Egyptian law allowing the deportation of the foreigners stipulates that they face prison or trial in their home country, but neither Australia nor Canada is likely to uphold the convictions.
By 5 p.m. on Sunday, Mr. Greste had boarded a plane for Cyprus, the first stop on his return to Australia, according to news reports. “He left to his country,” said Badr Abdelatty, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman.
“Hard to believe, but YES,” Andrew Greste, Peter’s brother, wrote on Twitter. Peter Greste “is a free man.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit group, said that as of December there were at least 12 journalists in jail in Egypt. Except for Mr. Greste and Mr. Fahmy, the rest appear to be Egyptian citizens. Most are linked to Islamist news outlets critical of the current government.