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Egypt Releases Jailed Al Jazeera Correspondent Peter Greste

Greste and two other Al Jazeera staffers — both still imprisoned — were sentenced to at least seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges last year.

by Meredith Hoffman
Feb 1 2015, 4:35pm

Photo by Hamada Elrasam/AP

Egypt released Al Jazeera correspondent Peter Greste on Sunday, ending 400 days of imprisonment following his conviction on terrorism-related charges in a case that was widely decried by human rights groups.

Egypt's ministry of interior confirmed to VICE News that Greste left the country on a flight at 4pm local time. Greste's release received presidential "approval," an official told the Associated Press. Greste flew on a EgyptAir flight to Cyprus where he met his brother, Mike Greste, and will soon return to his native Australia.

On Monday, Greste's family held a press conference in Sydney to confirm his release and that they had been in contact.

"Peter firstly wanted to thank all the people who have supported him who have given time, money, and energy in seeking his freedom, said his brother, Andrew.

"Mum, Dad, Mike and I are just small cogs in this massive campaign and we are continually humbled by people's generosity and outpouring of support."

"He is safe, healthy, and very, very happy to be on his way home."

Egypt's government — notorious for its harsh press censorship — had sentenced Greste to seven years in maximum-security prison for his coverage of the violent government crackdown on protests in 2013. Officials claimed he colluded with the outlawed Islamic activist group the Muslim Brotherhood, which Al Jazeera insisted was "false."

Greste was charged with aiding a terrorist group, tarnishing Egypt's international image, and threatening Egypt's national security. Two other Al Jazeera journalists — Baher Mohamed, a producer, and Mohamed Fahmy, the Cairo bureau chief, both sentenced last June along with Greste — are still being held.

Egypt's ministry of interior told VICE News that Greste was going "to complete his punishment there [Australia]," which could indicate the two journalists who remain in prison will still be considered criminals by the Egyptian government.

However, Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said that Greste had been released 'unconditionally'.

"From my discussion with him he was very keen to be back on a beach and be lying in the sun in Australia," she said.

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Greste released a statement through his family saying he would continue to fight on behalf of his two colleagues.

"While we remain strong and determined to do whatever it takes to clear our names and win freedom, 400 days still feels far too long to correct an injustice," he said in a letter.

And while Al Jazeera expressed delight at Greste's release, they too insisted that they "will not rest" until the other two men are released.

"We're pleased for Peter and his family that they are to be reunited. It has been an unjustifiable ordeal for them, and they have coped with incredible dignity," Al Jazeera director Mostafa Souag said in a public statement. He noted that "the Egyptian authorities have it in their power to finish this properly today, and that is exactly what they must do."

A new Egyptian law passed late last year allows the president to deport foreign convicts if he believes it serves national security interests. Egypt's President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi has emphasized he wants to end the Al Jazeera journalists case, which has attracted global criticism.

Amnesty International previously called the arrests and subsequent imprisonments a "ferocious attack on media freedom" and lamented that journalists were "being branded 'terrorists' simply for doing their jobs."

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At the beginning of this year, Egypt's court of cassation actually overturned the initial court decision and ordered a retrial, but there is no indication if or when the case will be retried.

Just yesterday, before he knew of his imminent freedom, Greste published a letter from prison about his struggles in The Australian.

"It is worth underlining the fact that we cannot protect the things that define a free society —whether they be freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the right of free association — by legislating limits on these very things," he wrote. "Too often the instinct of authority seems to be to erode them for the sake of 'security,' forgetting that those ideas are the ones that forge stable, tolerant, open and peaceful societies in the first place."

VICE News' John Beck contributed reporting.

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman