CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top prosecutor on Monday ordered the release of an Al-Jazeera journalist who has been on hunger strike for more than four months to protest his prolonged detention without charges or trial.
A statement from the prosecutor's office said Abdullah Elshamy, 26, and 12 others will be set free, citing "health conditions." The statement only named Elshamy. His lawyer said none of the 12 others were journalists.
The order to release Elshamy came on the same day the judge who is presiding over the trial of three other Al-Jazeera journalists said there would be a verdict on June 23, five months after the proceedings opened.
The case is the first prosecution of journalists on terrorism-related charges in Egypt. It has sparked an outcry among journalists and rights groups, who have criticized the allegations as groundless, saying the reporters were only doing their jobs.
Both cases are related to a sweeping crackdown on Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and allegations that the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera serves as a mouthpiece for his Muslim Brotherhood, which the government has branded a terror group.
The government has been under intense pressure from rights groups and Elshamy's relatives to either release or formally charge him. His mother Thuraya was breathless after hearing about the release order.
"Thank God. Thank God. Thank God, and thank you all," she said. She added that she planned to go get her son Monday evening, but it was not clear if he would be immediately released. Elshamy was swept up with hundreds of protesters on Aug. 14 while covering the violent dispersal of a sprawling sit-in by Morsi supporters, which saw hundreds killed and thousands wounded.
Prosecutors accused Elshamy of belonging to a banned group, attacking government officials and other acts of violence and sabotage. However, authorities have never charged him with a crime. After his hunger strike, Elshamy was put in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, as authorities tried to get him to end it.
His family said Elshamy suffers from severe anemia and problems with his kidneys. They've asked that he be moved out of prison to a hospital. Amnesty International described him as a "prisoner of conscience, detained solely for his journalistic work."
Elshamy last appeared in court last week, when his detention was renewed for another 45 days. "It is a victory. He has been subjected to a lot of injustices... and attempts to break his strike," said his brother, Mosab Elshamy, a prominent photojournalist.
He said his brother survived on water and sometimes juice when he fainted. He said authorities would transport him to a hospital at times, but the family was not fully informed about his condition or treatment. "This is an acknowledgement that his condition was bad... and that they can no longer keep him because there is no case against him."
Elshamy's attorney Shaaban Said, who is also a defense lawyer in the other Al-Jazeera trial, said his client's release came after repeated appeals. "The release makes us optimistic about the rest of the Al-Jazeera journalists," he said.
Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed were arrested Dec. 29 after authorities raided their makeshift studio and rooms in a Cairo hotel, accusing them of having unlicensed equipment and setting up a media center for the Brotherhood.
The defendants face charges ranging from belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, providing a media platform for the group and airing allegedly falsified footage that aims to undermine Egypt's national security.
Six other Al-Jazeera journalists were tried in absentia in the case, including two Britons. A Dutch journalist was also tried in absentia. The rest of the defendants are mostly students, accused of providing footage for the station.
Most Brotherhood-affiliated media outlets were shut down by the government following Morsi's ouster. Al-Jazeera Egypt Live, a local branch of the Qatar-based network, provided a platform for the Brotherhood as the crackdown began following the July 3 ouster of Morsi. Since then a court order has banned the local branch, which continues to cover Egypt from its studios in Doha.
"The defendants should only be acquitted, unless politics gets in the way," Said, the defense lawyer, told The Associated Press after Monday's session was adjourned. "The procedurals are flawed, there is no evidence and some of the defendants were tortured in detention... This was revenge on Al-Jazeera."
During Monday's session, Fahmy approached the bench and told the judge that Al-Jazeera should not be blamed for the unrest in the region. He then pulled the biography of George W. Bush from under his clothes, telling the judge that the former American president bears the responsibility for the chaos in Iraq.
Al-Jazeera said it hoped the journalists would be acquitted. "On June 23rd, the entire world will be watching Egypt to see whether they uphold the values of press freedom," the statement said.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.