STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Three Al-Jazeera journalists have begun another year in prison in Egypt, but they received some hopeful news on this New Year's Day. The country's highest court has canceled their sentences and ordered a retrial. The journalists' imprisonment for what they say was just reporting caused an outcry and many news organizations, including NPR, demanded their release. NPR's Leila Fadel was at the courthouse in Cairo today and joins us now. Hi, Leila.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: So why were their sentences canceled? What does that mean exactly?
FADEL: Well, basically, I think it shows how deeply flawed this case has been from the beginning. Both the defense lawyers and the prosecution called for a retrial, the defense saying the charges were not proven and the prosecution questioning the constitutionality of the proceedings as a whole, according to lawyers. So today that means that they will remain in prison, but they do get another day in court, and the seven years that two of them got - the tenures for the other man - have all been canceled.
INSKEEP: OK, so it's a do-over. They remain in prison while they wait for the do-over. What was the scene like in the courtroom today?
FADEL: Well, you know, the families were extremely sad, actually. I mean, it's good news that they get to go on trial again. But it's been over a year now that they've been in prison, and another trial means more time in jail. So there was a lot of grief. They were hoping and expecting the possibility of actual release today when the sentences were canceled, but that didn't happen. And there's no date yet for the retrial. So this really means more of their lives lost sitting in prison for crimes they really say they didn't commit and that weren't proven against them.
INSKEEP: Can you remind us what the crimes were, according to the authorities?
FADEL: Well, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested and convicted then on terrorism charges. But the evidence that was put out in court showed run-of-the-mill tools that journalists use, like cameras and notebooks, and doing things that journalists do, like taking notes and reporting, asking questions. And a lot of rights groups say that this trial was really a sham trial, and it was more political than actually criminal over a beef between Qatar, which owns Al-Jazeera, and Egypt.
INSKEEP: Oh, there were people, as you've discussed on this program before, who thought that this was actually part of power diplomacy that these people from Qatar - associated, anyway, with Qatar - were imprisoned. But now we have this situation where their sentences have been canceled. Is it a possible for Egyptians then to argue that, well, their system is working?
FADEL: Yes. I mean, the argument of the Egyptian state all along is put your trust in the judiciary. We cannot interfere in judicial procedures because there has been so much international pressure to release them. This court, the highest court, in Egypt has now canceled the sentence meaning that they may soon be released, but it doesn't console the families that their sons, their fathers, their brothers, have been in jail now for a year. Baher Mohamed - his baby was born while he was in jail. Mohamed Fahmy hasn't been able to get married. His fiancee's waiting for him to get out. And Peter Greste's parents and family have been coming here from Australia spending Christmas in a prison in Egypt visiting their son.
INSKEEP: And is there a sense of how much longer they have to wait until this retrial takes place?
FADEL: It's unclear. One of the family members did say they expect a date set within the month and the trial could begin. But again, the last trial took months before they got a verdict. So that could mean another year in prison for them. There are couple other options. There's been a recent law passed that says that foreigners can be deported if they're accused or convicted of a crime. Now, that would only apply to Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, if he renounces his citizenship, and the other option is a presidential pardon, but that is something that would only happen after the proceedings are completely finished.
INSKEEP: Leila, thanks very much.
FADEL: Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.