CAIRO – When Peter Greste, one of Australiaâ€™s most acclaimed journalists, first arrived in Egypt shortly before Christmas 2013 to cover for a colleague at al-Jazeeraâ€™s English language channel, he thought he would be departing again within a fortnight. One year and one month later, Greste was finally allowed to leave the country.
What had begun as a short work trip in a city Greste barely knew turned into a terrifying ordeal in a country that he came to understand all too well â€“ from the bowels of its most notorious prison. But shortly after 4pm local time on Sunday, exactly 400 days after he was arrested in his hotel room, his nightmare finally ended. At 4.10pm, accompanied by his brother Mike, Peter Greste left Egypt on a plane bound for Cyprus. Two hours later, as the pair made their way through customs, Mike said on the phone: â€œYep. Weâ€™ve landed.â€
As an Australian national, Greste was deported under the terms of a recently enacted presidential decree that allows foreign detainees to continue their detention in their home countries, and which is thought to have been passed with Gresteâ€™s case in mind.
The news sparked celebrations in Australia, where Gresteâ€™s family discovered in the small hours that he was finally free. Gresteâ€™s middle brother, Andrew, said: â€œI canâ€™t wipe the smile off my face. Itâ€™s hard to believe.â€
At a press conference in Brisbane , the family expressed their gratitude to all who supported the campaign.
Andrew said: â€œPeter is safe, healthy and happy to be free. We want to say thanks for all the support. Thanks to all the journalists who kept this story alive.
â€œPeter wanted me to mention this. We wanted to acknowledge Peterâ€™s colleagues are still in jail. Peter wonâ€™t rest until they are released from prison.
â€œ His excitement is tempered and will be until his colleagues are free.
â€œTo the people of Egypt, we wish you peace and prosperity.â€
Replying to questions about the speed and secrecy of Gresteâ€™s release, Andrew said: â€œApologies for the media blackout last night. Iâ€™m sure you understand we didnâ€™t want anything to unravel and threaten Peterâ€™s freedom. Our priority was to get him into a safe spot. We now want to give him some time to gather his thoughts.â€
One of two colleagues jailed with Greste, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, is also expected to be deported soon, but on Sunday he and his family would speak only about Greste.
â€œI am ecstatic for Peter,â€ said Fahmy, in comments relayed from prison by his family. â€œWe have all suffered immensely and knowing he will be reunited with his family is a victory for all of us.â€
But the news was bittersweet for the other colleague, Baher Mohamed. As an Egyptian national, Mohamed is ineligible for deportation as he holds only an Egyptian passport. The last hope for him â€“ and for five students jailed alongside him â€“ is a forthcoming retrial or a presidential pardon.
â€œBaher will not be released,â€ said Mohamedâ€™s brother, Assem. â€œAs always what happens in Egypt [is] itâ€™s the Egyptians who pay.â€
Their time in prison has taken a heavy toll on the trio and their families. Gresteâ€™s family was forced to spend large parts of the year in Egypt to support him. Mohamed missed the birth of his child, while Fahmy has developed a chronic shoulder condition after failing to receive adequate treatment for an injury sustained shortly before his arrest. His lawyers, whom he now employs independently of al-Jazeera, say he urgently needs treatment for both his shoulder and for hepatitis C.
In jail, Greste, who knew little of Egyptian politics before his arrival, found himself alongside some of the countryâ€™s best-known political figures. Hisham Qandil, prime minister during the tenure of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi, was in the cell next door. Mohamed Badie, the head of Morsiâ€™s Muslim Brotherhood, was on the same corridor.
It was al-Jazeera Englishâ€™s perceived associations with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was by then a banned opposition group, that led to the trioâ€™s conviction in June 2014. Greste and his colleagues were successfully charged with aiding terrorists, belonging to the Brotherhood and making up the news.
Rights groups and journalists who attended the trial denounced it as comically flawed.
Evidence presented by the prosecution in court included a song by the musician Gotye, a programme about sheep farming, footage of trotting horses, and a press conference in Kenya.
â€œHappy World Press Freedom Day,â€ Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata, who notoriously wore sunglasses in the gloomy courtroom, sarcastically told the journalists at one point.
Last month, an appeals judge appeared to recognise those flaws, sending the case to retrial. But he refused to release the trio on bail â€“ prompting Greste and Fahmy to announce plans to seek deportation.
Inside Egypt, many government supporters saw the journalists as a legitimate target. The coverage of al-Jazeera Englishâ€™s Arabic sister channels has strongly favoured Brotherhood viewpoints â€“ angering the supporters of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi â€“ while the channelsâ€™ owner, the state of Qatar, has given financial and logistical support to the group itself.
But in the international arena, where the trioâ€™s case has become a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre, observers view the case as a politicised attack on the freedom of expression, and part of a rampant crackdown on all forms of Egyptian opposition.
According to the policeâ€™s own figures, Fahmy and Mohamed remain among at least 16,000 political prisoners currently detained in Egypt. Independent estimates put the figure at about 40,000. The international focus on Peter Greste has led the supporters of his many fellow inmates to remind the outside world that his release is only a small gesture in the context of Egyptâ€™s wider crackdown on dissent.
There are at least 11 other journalists in jail in Egypt, according to US-based independent organisation the Committee to Protect Journalists, with some estimates far higher. With little public profile, many of them lament there is no international campaign to shine a light on their cases.
â€œJournalism is journalism,â€ said one, Abdullah Fakharany, the co-founder of pro-Islamist Rassd News Network, in a note from prison.
â€œBeing a journalist from a non-western background doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™re a lesser journalist. Just because Rassd isnâ€™t as famous as al-Jazeera doesnâ€™t mean Iâ€™m less of a journalist.â€
In Australia, where Greste has become a national hero, the reaction was understandably more straightforward.
While Egyptâ€™s interior ministry claimed that Greste would serve out the remainder of his sentence in Australia, his family said they understood that this was not the case.
As Andrew Greste said: â€œWeâ€™re just over the moon.â€ – The Guardian
â€¢ December 29 2013: Al-Jazeera English journalists Peter Greste – an Australian citizen and former BBC correspondent – Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed are arrested in the Cairo hotel where they had been working since their offices were raided. A cameraman also arrested is released two days later
â€¢ December 31: State prosecutor orders the three to be held for 15 days – renewed on January 9 – on charges of spreading false news and joining a terrorist organisation: the newly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood
â€¢ February 20 2014: Trial opens, all three plead not guilty and protest at their prison conditions
â€¢ April 10: Protests in court about the irrelevance of prosecution evidence, including news clips of an animal hospital, a BBC podcast, a pop video, and a news report made while none of the three was in Egypt
â€¢ June 23: Greste and Fahmy are sentenced to seven years in prison, Mohammed to 10 – an extra three years for possessing ammunition – sparking International outrage, including from US secretary of state John Kerry, who calls it â€œchilling and draconianâ€
â€¢ June 24: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rejects international calls for him to pardon the three or commute their sentences
â€¢ November 6: Fahmyâ€™s lawyer, Amal Clooney, demands his release on medical grounds, saying he needs urgent treatment for heptatitis C and a shoulder injury
â€¢ November 12: Sisi issues decree allowing him to deport foreigners accused or convicted of crimes, meaning Greste and Fahmy could be ordered to leave, but not Mohammed, who holds only an Egyptian passport
â€¢ November 20: In a France 24 interview, Sisi says a presidential pardon is â€œbeing examinedâ€
â€¢ January 1 2015: Egyptian court orders a retrial, but the three are not granted bail and remain in prison. Lawyers for Greste and Fahmy say they will seek deportation
â€¢ February 1: Greste deported to Cyprus