After 412 days in an Egyptian prison, Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was released on bail one week ago, in the early hours of Feb. 13. He is due back in court Monday, Feb. 23, when his case goes to retrial. While he told CBC’s Fifth Estate this week that he will do “whatever it takes” to not go back to prison, the coordinator of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s international programs, Alexandra Zakreski, emphasizes that the public and the Canadian government must do the same.
The #FreeAJStaff campaign resulting from Fahmy’s case has been the biggest ongoing campaign in CJFE’s history. This week, Zakreski explained to OpenCanada how crucial public support before Monday’s retrial is, and how past cases in Egypt make the outcome unpredictable.
Mohamed Fahmy was released on bail last Friday. How has he spent this past week since his release?
In the week since his release, Fahmy has been mainly spending time with his family and fiancée of course, but he’s also been doing media appearances to try to build more awareness around the case and push the Canadian government to advocate for him to be deported back to Canada so that this nightmare can finally be over.
To the best of my knowledge, he’s also been meeting with Canadian embassy representatives and trying to get meetings with high-level Egyptian government officials. He’s also been adhering to the terms of his bail by checking in daily with a local police station.
Since the retrial was announced almost two weeks ago, what kind of preparation has his legal team been doing and do you know what kind of actions the Canadian government has taken since?
I can’t speak to any details on his legal team’s specific preparations for the retrial. In terms of Canadian government actions, those are equally hard to speak to just because the Canadian government has been so opaque about their own advocacy on behalf of Fahmy. Prior to the first retrial hearing, Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper made a statement that he had previously sent letters to President el-Sisi but we don’t know when and we don’t know how strongly they were worded. We haven’t had a statement from him on the subject since.
In the past couple of weeks we have had stronger rhetoric from the Minister of State Lynne Yelich where she forcefully called for Fahmy’s immediate and full release, which is a positive change and hopefully belies more government action and diplomacy behind the scenes.
Fahmy said in a recent interview that the public and the media are his only line of defense, what can both the public and media do between now and the retrial on Monday? How crucial is this advocacy before Monday?
The public can continue to support both Mohamed Fahmy and his Egyptian colleague Baher Mohamed by tweeting the #FreeAJStaff hashtag and not letting public awareness and discussion of the case drop. It is not unheard of in Egypt for prisoners of conscience to be freed on bail and then imprisoned again when international attention wanes so this is a genuine concern for both journalists here as well.
The public can also support the move to have Prime Minister Harper intervene on Fahmy’s behalf and secure his deportation by using the #HarperCallEgypt hashtag, calling their Members of Parliament and urging them to put this issue on the agenda, and contacting the Office of the Prime Minister to do the same.
The media has been an incredible ally thus far so I would say the most important thing is to keep reporting on this case despite other things happening on the international stage, and to also report more generally on the situation for local journalists suffering in Egypt, none of whom have foreign governments able to advocate on their behalf.
It’s important to emphasize with regards to the Monday retrial date that Fahmy is eligible to be deported at any point in the retrial. There is no legal impediment preventing his transfer to Canada, even while the trial is underway, as the presidential decree allows for the repatriation of foreigners accused of a crime on Egyptian soil, or convicted. What makes it important to ramp up action before Monday, and to continue advocating until both journalists’ unconditional freedom is secured, is that the Egyptian judicial system is incredibly unpredictable and volatile. We have seen so many positive signals that the journalists will be freed, which are then followed by backsliding and a prolonging of this interminable ordeal for both families involved. Ultimately, both journalists need to be freed as soon as possible because this situation has already gone on for far too long.
What can we expect at the retrial — who will be there, how long might it take, and what are the possible outcomes?
It’s very hard to say what to expect for Monday’s retrial date just because the situation is always changing and impossible to predict. In terms of who will be there, it’s safe to say that Fahmy’s Egyptian lawyer will be representing him in court and that his family and fiancée are attending. In length, the proceedings have ranged in the past so it’s difficult to predict. In terms of possible outcomes, we expect that Fahmy’s bail won’t be revoked but beyond that I don’t want to speculate.
Are there any precedents that you know of either in Egypt or similar cases of jailed journalists — in terms of what action we might expect from the Egyptian or Canadian governments?
The great majority of journalists jailed in Egypt currently are being held without charge so there really isn’t any precedent for Fahmy except for Peter Greste, in the sense that they are both foreign nationals who have been charged with crimes in Egypt (now that Fahmy has dropped his Egyptian citizenship). In terms of hoping to follow Greste’s example of being deported through that same presidential decree, the Canadian Prime Minister needs to make personal appeals to the Egyptian President in the same way that Australian PM Tony Abbott did for Greste.
The closest precedent would perhaps be that of Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, where we saw that concerted pressure from the Canadian government made a great difference. While the former Minister of Foreign Affairs frequently drew attention to the issues posed by Fahmy’s dual citizenship, now that he’s divested himself of his Egyptian citizenship that’s clearly not an issue anymore and we’re hopeful that the Canadian government is advocating strongly behind the scenes since they don’t appear to be doing so publicly.
Were there lessons learned about the role of the media, the public or the Canadian government in the release of Greyson and Loubani, or other cases?
I think it’s fairly clear to all of us who work on campaigning and advocacy that international attention and the way that it’s garnered through traditional media and social media is incredibly important and impactful.
Even Egyptian journalist Abdullah Elshamy, also employed by Al Jazeera, who was detained for over a year without charge and was eventually freed after a hunger strike, he was told that the international attention that his case attracted was a nuisance for the Egyptian government and so problematic that it helped secure his release. So definitely when working on these cases it’s important to have a loud collective voice and support from the international media community, something that we also saw helped to secure the release of Greyson and Loubani.
Does this case help shine a spotlight on journalists at risk in general, or in some ways does it take attention away from the many other cases that also need advocacy, especially those of nationals imprisoned in their own countries? how does CJFE find that balance?
This case definitely helps to shine a spotlight on the risks facing journalists around the world. It has become increasingly common for journalists to be charged with the same kind of terrorism-related offences in other countries when their reporting is somehow inconvenient or uncomfortable for the governments in charge.
It’s happening on an appalling scale and the great majority of journalist suffering from it are local journalists working on the ground who don’t have the support of international media organizations or foreign governments to advocate for them. Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are just two of at least 50 journalists currently detained in Egypt. So with a case like this, that is much more high profile, we try as hard as we can to also use it to draw attention to the plight of other journalists and prisoners of conscience detained in Egypt. Even when Fahmy and Mohamed are hopefully freed, the situation in Egypt is not one that we’ll be turning away from as an organization.
Lastly, is there anything else Mohamed or his family would like the Canadian public to know?
Certainly Mohamed Fahmy’s legal costs are prohibitively expensive and I would encourage everyone to take a look at the crowd-funding page to donate, because it really is crucial. Beyond that, I would say that Fahmy and his family simply want the Canadian public to know that they appreciate their support throughout this whole ordeal, the campaign for the release of he and his colleagues has really been staggering, and also that Fahmy is looking forward to a time hopefully soon when he can settle in Canada. He and his fiancée are planning on returning to Canada and building a life here as soon as he’s freed.