Just one week after hopes were raised for his release from an Egyptian prison, the nightmare ordeal of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy has been prolonged. On Sunday, Egypt's military-backed regime said Fahmy and his al Jazeera colleague Baher Mohamed will face a new trial beginning later this week. The two have spent more than 400 days behind bars for allegedly spreading false news and aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood, charges widely denounced as shams. In a statement, Fahmy's family called the retrial "our worst nightmare."
The Fahmys had expected a far different outcome following the release of a third Al Jazeera journalist, Australian national Peter Greste. Arrested and imprisoned alongside his two colleagues, Greste was deported February 1st under a presidential decree for jailed foreigners. Fahmy, born in Egypt and raised in Montreal, secretly renounced his Egyptian citizenship to qualify for the same treatment. His family says the decision was made under duress after Egyptian authorities told him "this was the only way out... It was one of the most difficult decisions he has ever taken [and] has left him demoralized."
Fahmy's extended imprisonment also raises new questions about the Canadian government's handling of his case. As Greste was sent home last week, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird declared that Fahmy's freedom was "imminent." Aides to Prime Minister Stephen Harper have claimed diplomatic efforts over Fahmy's release entered a "new phase" in recent weeks, with Baird raising the issue with his Egyptian counterpart and Canadian and Egyptian officials holding several meetings in Cairo.
After reportedly receiving assurances that Fahmy would be freed, Canadian officials now say they are seeking answers for why Fahmy is being retried. But the apparent turnaround should not come as a surprise in light of Canada's response, which has been timid from the start. After initially staying silent on Fahmy's arrest, the Canadian government has described his plight as a "consular issue." Before his surprise resignation last week, Baird rejected a stronger approach as "bullhorn diplomacy," saying he pursued Fahmy's release "in an effective way, not in a loud way."
The silence on Fahmy's imprisonment has coincided with Harper's muted reaction to the Egyptian government's crackdown on political opponents. Despite responsibility for one of the worst killings of political demonstrators in recent memory, mass death sentences for Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and the jailing of scores of activists and journalists, the Harper government has warmly embraced President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime. Last month, Baird unveiled a closer security collaboration with Egypt that includes Canadian training of Egyptian forces.
Fahmy's family has expressed increasing frustration with Canada's stance and today issued their strongest criticism to date. "We are worried and we have been let down by the Canadian government's conservative approach in the handling of the case," the family said. "That is also the feeling of the Egyptian officials and public figures sympathizing with us who are shocked that the Canadian prime minister had not intervened yet to expedite matters while the Australian most senior official has done an outstanding job in the release of his colleague Peter Greste."
Harper, the statement adds, "has failed us immensely," forcing them to take on the bulk of the lobbying themselves. On Monday, the Fahmy family launched a social media campaign to pressure the Canadian government under the hashtag #HarperCallEgypt.
The Harper government appears to have at least partially gotten the message. In a statement on Sunday, Lynne Yelich, the minister of state for consular affairs, said: "Canada calls for the immediate release of Mr. Fahmy." It was the first time a Harper official has made a direct public demand for the Canadian journalist's freedom. With no end in sight to Fahmy's time behind bars, it appears the Harper government will have ample opportunity to explain why its call came so late.
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