CAIRO: Egypt's top court Thursday ordered a retrial of three Al Jazeera reporters whose imprisonment on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood triggered global outrage, but kept them in custody pending a new hearing.
Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed of the broadcaster's English service were detained in December 2013 for spreading false information. Greste and Fahmy each got seven years, and Mohamed was jailed for 10.
“The Court of Cassation has accepted their appeal and ordered a retrial, “Greste's defence lawyer Amr Al-Deeb said Thursday.
The defendants were not at the hearing, which lasted just 30 minutes.
Hopes for the journalists' release have grown following a thaw in diplomatic relations between Cairo and Qatar, where their employer is based. Both the defence and the prosecution had requested a retrial.
“I hope the reconciliation efforts between Egypt and Qatar continue for the sake of my brother and his colleagues ... who are paying the price of a political crisis,” Fahmy's brother Adel told reporters.
Mohamed's wife Jihan welcomed the retrial as a “small but positive step towards my husband being freed”.
“This past year has been the worst year of me and my children's lives,” she added. Al-Jazeera called for the swift release of its employees.
“The Egyptian authorities have a simple choice -- free these men quickly or continue to string this out, all the while continuing this injustice and harming the image of their own country in the eyes of the world,” the channel said. “They should choose the former. “
'Settling political scores'
The reporters, who authorities say lacked proper accreditation, were sentenced in June for aiding the Muslim Brotherhood after the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The Brotherhood, which saw electoral success after the overthrow of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has since been declared a “terrorist organisation” in Egypt.
Analysts said the retrial appeared to be a step towards the release of the journalists.
“The question is now about time ... how quickly will the retrial be conducted,” H.A. Hellyer of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington told AFP.
"It might not be a full acquittal. There are other options, with sentences ranging from time served to suspended sentences. But it is quite likely it will end in their release."
A date for the retrial has not yet been announced.
But defence lawyer Shabaan Saeed said it was expected to begin soon as “the government wants to end the case as fast as possible”.
The reporters were arrested when Egypt and Qatar were at loggerheads after Morsi was removed by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president, following mass protests against his one-year rule.
“Their arrest was a settling of political scores between Egypt and Qatar, “Fahmy's lawyer Negad al-Borai said.
Ties worsened when Qatar, a key backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, repeatedly denounced Morsi's overthrow, prompting Cairo to accuse Al-Jazeera of biased coverage.
At least 1,400 people have died in the crackdown on Morsi's supporters, most of them in August 2013 when police broke up two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo.
The diplomatic row now appears to be ending following mediation by Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia, a key Sisi backer.
On December 20, Cairo told a Qatari envoy it was ready for a “new era” in relations with Doha, as the emirate offered its “full support” to Sisi.
Two days later, Al-Jazeera announced the surprise closure of its Egyptian channel, which had consistently criticised Cairo since Morsi's ouster.
Sisi himself has said he would have preferred the journalists to have been deported rather than tried. In November, he issued a decree allowing him to deport foreigners sentenced to prison or on trial.
On Thursday, the court also ordered a retrial for co-defendants, including four Egyptians who were jailed for seven years on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation and for “damaging the image of Egypt”.
Eleven other defendants, tried in absentia, including one Dutch and two British journalists, had been sentenced to 10 years.