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Leading Egyptian activists freed after nearly two years without trial

Six activists released including journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah who was arrested in October 2019 on charges of 'spreading false news' and 'collaborating with a terrorist group'
Abdel Fattah's detention sparked international condemnation, with the United States calling it 'scandalous' (AFP)

Six leading Egyptian activists have been released from detention, including journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, one of the symbols of the 2011 revolution.

Abdel Fattah was has freed after nearly 22 months in pre-trial detention, her lawyer Khaled Ali said on Sunday.

Among the others ordered released were leftist activist Mahienour El-Masri and journalists Motaz Wadnan and Mostafa El-Asar.

Ali, as well as friends of Abdel Fattah, posted photographs online of her being released from prison.

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In 2008, Abdel Fattah created an "April 6" Facebook page in support of striking workers and to call for political reforms, at the start of the mobilisation of mass protests that would lead to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak three years later.

Abdel Fattah, who was nominated for a Nobel prize, was arrested in October 2019 on charges of "spreading false news" and "collaborating with a terrorist group".

Her detention sparked international condemnation, with the United States calling it "scandalous".

The 43-year-old, who was also previously jailed under Mubarak, walked free just hours after a surprise decision by the prosecution to release her.

Under Egyptian law, pre-trial detention can be extended for up to two years.

Opposition to Morsi

Having helped spearhead Egypt’s January 2011 revolution which ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule, two years later Abdel Fattah participated in mass protests against Mubarak’s elected successor and leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military on 3 July 2013.

On Saturday evening, the prosecution also decided to release activist Abdel Nasser Ismail, leader of the Popular Alliance party, who was arrested in September 2019 for "participation in a terrorist group", according to lawyers.

Egyptian journalist and opposition figure Gamal El-Gammal, arrested on his return from Turkey in February, was also freed.

US warning

Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in 2013, hundreds of journalists, activists, lawyers and intellectuals have been arrested.

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The country has also been accused of using human rights defenders as bargaining chips, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimating that more than 60,000 political prisoners have been languishing in Egyptian jails since Sisi became president in 2014.

On Wednesday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington was concerned by the continued detentions, indictments and harassment of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics and journalists, and had raised these concerns with Cairo.

The United States had told the Egyptian government that individuals like Hossam Bahgat, a prominent journalist and human rights advocate, should not be targeted, Price told reporters, saying the issue would be a factor in arms sales to its ally.