Prominent Egyptian journalist and human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat was released on Tuesday, his lawyer said, two days after being detained, allegedly because of a report he wrote about a trial of former army officers. Bahgat's legal status however remained unclear if prosecutors had dropped the charges against him or not.
Bahgat had just returned from spending a year in New York as a visiting fellow at the Columbia journalism school when he received a summons from military intelligence on Sunday.
In October, Baghat wrote an in-depth investigative story about 26 officers he said had been convicted by a military court of plotting a coup. Military intelligence questioned Baghat under suspicious that he had decimated "false information" in that story — a crime under Egypt's penal system.
After being interrogated, Bahgat was arrested and transferred to a military prosecutor. According to Buzzfeed News, prosecutors reportedly told Baghat that he could walk away if he promised to never again write about the Egyptian military. He refused.
Following Bahgat's arrest, several human rights groups and the United Nations criticized Egyptian authorities, saying the detention of Baghat was further evidence that the government was looking to repress independent journalism and civil society. Amnesty International said the arrest was a clear signal of the determination of Egyptian authorities "to continue with their ferocious onslaught against independent journalism and civil society".
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Egypt to release Bahgat on Tuesday and called for the country to end what it called its harsh treatment of journalists. "(Egypt should) take urgent steps to halt the legal harassment of journalists…and take equally urgent measures to halt the expanding use of the military justice system for cases involving civilians," the UNHCR said in a statement.
Human rights groups accuse President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as military chief deposed a freely elected Islamist president in 2013, of exploiting security threats to roll back political freedoms won in the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt's constitution, approved by referendum in January 2014, states that no civilian can be tried in military court except for "crimes that constitute a direct assault" against military forces or property, but it includes documents and military secrets in that definition.
The arrest came as President Sisi is cementing ties with the US and its allies. Last week, the US announced it would resume a long stalled joint-tank building program to refresh Egypt's supply of M1A1 Abrams. And last weekend, Sisi traveled to the UK where he met one-on-one with British Prime Minster David Cameron.
Bahgat has been one of Egypt's leading voices on human rights for over a decade. In 2002, he founded the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights (EIPR), one of Egypt's most outspoken independent human rights organization.
More recently, he has published a series of searing investigations for Mada Masr, including an expose revealing massive corruption within the family of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and a series of pieces exposing the links between Egyptian presidential candidates and Saudi Arabia.
Activists had planned to hold protests in front of Egyptian embassies in the US and across Europe on Tuesday to push for Baghat's release.
Egypt Under Sisi