Egypt frees Al-Jazeera journalist detained since 2016

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CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Thursday ordered the release of an Al-Jazeera journalist who had been detained since 2016 on allegations of spreading false news and defaming Egypt's reputation.

Mahmoud Hussein, an Egyptian journalist working for the Qatar-based satellite network, was detained at the Cairo airport in December 2016 when he arrived on a family vacation from Doha. No official charges were ever raised against him and Hussein didn't stand trial.

"This case shows the misuse of pre-trial detention as a form of punishment in Egypt," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. He said there are at least 20,000 people currently in detention without charges in Egypt for political reasons. Hundreds of them have already exceeded the legal two-year pre-trial term, he said.

Since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the Al-Jazeera network has been portrayed as Egypt's national enemy for its sympathy toward Islamists. Many of its reporters have been arrested on grounds of spreading lies and supporting an insurgent group — a reference to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organization.

Doha-based Al-Jazeera reported the release of Hussein on its website Thursday, saying Hussein "was arrested without formal charges and kept in prison for 881 days."

His daughter, Az-Zahra Hussein, said on Facebook that her father will be released "with precautionary measures" — likely meaning he'll have to report regularly to police — and that he's soon to be transferred from prison to a police station.

Under Egyptian law, Hussein must be released within 24 hours, said Eid.

"This is a final court ruling but the problem is that security forces tend to delay releases when they do not like those freed," said Eid, adding that in some previous cases the execution of the release order took several months.

In 2013, Egypt officials received a landslide of international condemnation when security forces arrested three journalists, including Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed who worked for Al-Jazeera English at the time. A court found them guilty and sentenced them to seven to 10 years in prison. Later, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ordered Greste deported after having spent 400 days behind bars and pardoned his co-defendants.

Since his assent to power, el-Sissi has waged an unprecedented crackdown on dissent, arresting thousands — mostly Islamists but also prominent secular activists and journalists — and rolling back freedoms won after the 2011 uprising. In 2017, the Egyptian government blocked access to Al-Jazeera's news website along with dozens of other news sites deemed too critical of el-Sissi's regime. According to a 2018 report by the New York-based Committee to Protest Journalists, Egypt along with Turkey and China were responsible for more than half of journalists jailed around the world for the third year in a row. Egypt is also placed 161 out of 180 countries in the press freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based non-profit that advocates for freedom of expression.

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