Peter Greste, an Al-Jazeera and former BBC reporter, left Egypt yesterday after the president approved his deportation following more than a year behind bars in a case that was widely condemned by civil rights groups.
A Cairo airport official said Mr Greste, an Australian national, was last night on an EgyptAir flight to Larnaca, Cyprus that took off shortly after 4pm.
An Egyptian prison official and the nation’s official news agency said Mr Greste had been released following a presidential “approval”. An interior ministry statement said his release was an implementation of the new deportation law passed last year.
Mr Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were sentenced to at least seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges last year in a trial described as a sham by rights groups.
There was no word yesterday on the future of the other two journalists.
Mr Greste’s brother Andrew said in a statement yesterday: “We’re ecstatic that Peter has been released and we now ask if the world could respect his privacy, to give him time to appreciate his freedom before he faces the media.”
The release of Mr Greste, 49, who also holds Latvian nationality, was welcomed by Al-Jazeera and Amnesty International, but both said the fate of the other journalists must not be forgotten.
Acting Al-Jazeera director-general Mostefa Souag said the Qatar-based network “will not rest until Baher and Mohamed also regain their freedom”.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, welcomed the news of Mr Greste’s release but said: “Nothing can make up for his ordeal.
“It is vital that in the celebratory fanfare surrounding his deportation, the world does not forget the continuing ordeal of Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, who remain behind bars at Tora prison in Cairo.”
The three were arrested over their coverage of the violent crackdown on Islamist protests following the military overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Egyptian authorities accused them of providing a platform for Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, now declared a terrorist organisation.
The three were also convicted of spreading false information, faking reports to show that the country was on the verge of civil war and aiding the Brotherhood’s goal of portraying Egypt as a failed state. Baher Mohamed received an additional three years for possession of a spent bullet. Three other foreign reporters received ten-year sentences in absentia. Twelve others co-were sentenced to between seven and ten years, some of them in absentia.
Rights groups and several media outlets condemned the verdicts as political, saying the three were doing their job during a tumultuous time.
According to a law passed late last year, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has the power to deport foreign defendants or convicts if it is considered to be in the interest of national security. The law was seen as providing a potential legal instrument with which to free the journalists.
Mr El-Sissi had repeatedly said he wants to end the case, which has prompted a storm of international criticism.
An official at the Egyptian interior ministry said the release had been co-ordinated with the Australian embassy in Cairo.
Reports yesterday said that Egyptian law required those deported under these circumstances to either finish their sentence in their home country or be put on trial again there, and it is unclear whether the Australian authorities have agreed to that.