Al Jazeera journalists are free, but Egypt’s jails still host thousands of political prisoners

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Hazem and Fairouz, two of Baher Mohamed's children, play during a visit from AFP journalists on February 5, 2015 in Cairo. Their father, an Al Jazeera journalist, was imprisoned for much of the last 18 months.
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED

JERUSALEM — Baher Mohamed is finally home this week, celebrating his newfound freedom with his wife and small children.

The Al Jazeera English journalist, who has spent much of the last 18 months in jail, found himself a free man after a sudden, unexpected pardon from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last week. Sisi extended the pardon to Mohamed and 99 others whom rights groups and lawyers contend were being held on trumped-up charges. Other detainees were not so lucky.

Mohamed and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy were arrested along with their Australian colleague Peter Greste in late 2013. The journalists were sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “aiding a terrorist organization,” following an earlier verdict convicting the three of “spreading false news,” which was overturned. Greste was deported in February under an edict that allows foreigners to serve their sentences in their own countries.

The pardons came as a rare piece of positive news the day before President Sisi flew to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. But advocates aren’t convinced they signal real change within the Egyptian government.

On Monday, Amnesty International said that “the international community must not be fooled by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s veneer of reform and empty promises.”

Even among the 100 pardoned, seven are still behind bars this week. Thousandsmore held for reasons related to free expression or political violence — on what many consider dubious charges — remain in prison.

"Those pardoned … include only a fraction of the hundreds of people across the country who have been arbitrarily arrested, and unlawfully detained," Amnesty said last week.

Twenty-seven-year old photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as “Shawkan,” is one of them. He has been held for more than two years in pretrial detention and has yet to be officially charged. His repeated requests for appeal have been denied.

Mahmoud Hussein, age 19, has spent more than 600 days behind bars for wearing a “Nation Without Torture” T-shirt commemorating the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution. He has been neither charged nor tried.

Well-known bloggers Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, as well as human rights defender Mahienoor Elmasry and activists Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, with the April 6th movement, were conspicuously absent from the list of those pardoned.

Social media abounded last week with photos of two curly-haired women in white prison clothes embracing: Activists Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif were released after more than a year behind bars. The young women, along with 22 others, were serving two-year sentences for peacefully protesting without a permit. Sallam was a recipient of the African Shield Human Rights Defender Award in 2013.

Overall, rights groups say that the situation in Egypt is cause for serious concern. Reports of forcibly disappeared activists have multiplied in the last year, many of whom often reappear in Egypt’s jails weeks after their families report them missing.

One of them is Esraa el-Taweel, a 23-year-old amateur photojournalist who suffered a back injury during the dispersal of protests in 2013 and has difficulty walking. She disappeared in June, resurfacing two weeks later in a women’s prison.

Many others whose names are not known to the public are also in detention, without the benefit of national or international pressure on their behalf.

The Egyptian authorities are “effectively holding political prisoners like bargaining chips, releasing them only when politically expedient,” Amnesty claimed, “or when they need to deflect international criticism of their appalling human rights record.”