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CAIRO (AP) — Worn out but smiling, a prominent Egyptian activist facing retrial on a 15-year prison sentence for violating a draconian protest law walked out of a Cairo prison Monday after a court ordered him freed on bail.
The release of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who has emerged as a powerful voice for civil rights in Egypt, provided a small victory for the country's young activists who played a leading role in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak only to later become frequent targets of successive governments. Abdel-Fattah was freed after dozens of activists began a hunger strike last month to protest limits on public demonstrations and the detention of activists.
A lawyer representing Abdel-Fattah, a vocal government critic for more than a decade who has been repeatedly jailed, said he was released on 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($714) bail along with two other activists.
Later in the day, Abdel-Fattah, dressed in white clothes, walked out of Tora prison on Cairo's southern outskirts, chanting against the protest law as his family and friends waiting outside cheered.
"I have been on hunger strike for some 40 days. I am exhausted," he told the crowd before leaving with his family.
Attorney Mohammed Abdel-Aziz said the judge presiding over the retrial withdrew from the case at the request of defense lawyers. "The judge said in his reasons for stepping down that it was prompted by a show of disrespect to the court," Abdel-Aziz said. The retrial will begin once a new judge is assigned to the case.
Last week, during the latest court session, Egyptian prosecutors presented a personal home video of Abdel-Fattah's wife dancing as evidence against him, prompting an outcry from his lawyers that the material was irrelevant and defamatory.
The judge allowed the video to be shown at the time, but on Monday he ordered the country's top prosecutor to investigate the use of the video, according to a judicial official. The judge called the video irrelevant to the case and said playing it in public violated the constitutional right to privacy, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The rest of the evidence presented during the session consisted of video clips from private TV stations showing various protests and police chasing unidentified civilians. No scenes or footage of Abdel-Fattah or any other defendant in the case were shown.
Egyptian dailies linked the surprise release to an emotional letter written by Abdel-Fattah and widely circulated by activist groups, in which he asked to be released and demanded the judge step down, saying he did not believe he would be given a fair trial.
"I have lost all confidence," Abdel-Fattah wrote. "I am fearful over my freedom, my future, and my family. Fearful of injustice."
"I ask you (the judge) to step aside and to give me a chance to stand before a different court, in which I would be reassured, and to start the court proceedings again without fear or enmity."
Abdel-Fattah's sentence was the harshest given to secular activists amid an ongoing government crackdown that has mainly targeted Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military in July 2013 amid massive protests demanding his resignation.
The government's subsequent crackdown on Morsi supporters has left hundreds dead and thousands in imprisoned. Morsi and many senior members of his Muslim Brotherhood movement have been jailed since last summer.
Last autumn the government passed a law criminalizing any unauthorized protest, and police have arrested both Islamist and non-Islamist activists who violate it.
Abdel-Fattah was granted a retrial last month on charges of organizing an unauthorized protest, beating a police officer and stealing his walkie-talkie last November.
Last month, dozens of non-Islamist activists and journalists started a hunger strike to protest the prolonged detention of activists, under a campaign called "We have had enough." On Monday, some 100 protesters took to the steps of the Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo to chant against the protest law.
"We don't know what to do for those imprisoned ... this is the last thing we can do," said 27-year-old Doaa Bassouni, who said she had started a 48-hour hunger strike in support of the detainees.
The release of Abdel-Fattah was welcomed as a small victory by the young activists, many of whom had taken part in the massive Arab Spring demonstrations that toppled Mubarak.
"A small but wonderful victory for brave activist community still working to keep the Jan 25th dream alive," novelist Ahdaf Soueif, Abdel-Fattah's aunt, wrote on Twitter, referring to the start of the anti-Mubarak protests.
Abdel-Fattah has been arrested several times, including under Mubarak, the military authorities who ruled after his ouster and Morsi.
He comes from one of Egypt's most prominent activist families, and his sister Sanaa is also in jail for violating the protest law. His father Ahmed Seif was a longtime human rights activist who was repeatedly jailed under Mubarak and who passed away in late August.
Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.
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