A Cairo court on Thursday postponed the final verdict in the retrial of three Al-Jazeera English reporters for next week, in a blow to the defendants and human rights activists who had expected a resolution to the long-running case.
The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera said it was outraged that the verdict has been adjourned and hoped for a swift end to the proceedings with the charges dropped.
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The postponement came because the judge in the case, Hassan Farid, was ill, two Egyptian judicial officials said. The new date for the verdict, Aug. 2, would also likely be pushed back because the illness was serious, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations.
The three Al-Jazeera staff — Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy who was the TV channel's Cairo acting bureau chief, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed — were detained in December 2013 while working for the Doha-based network.
Fahmy and Mohammed expressed their disappointment over the postponement when they came out of the court building to talk to reporters on Thursday.
"It's really disappointing what happened today, we were expecting a verdict," Mohamed said.
"We should have been informed, or my lawyer should have been informed officially that there is an adjournment or delay," a visibly frustrated Fahmy added.
The Al-Jazeera trio were first sentenced to up to 10 years in prison each, before Egypt's highest court ordered the retrial on charges of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organization, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.
Greste was released and deported in February. Fahmy and Mohammed were later released on bail.
The case highlighted frictions between Egypt and Qatar that began in 2013, when the Egyptian military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi amid massive protests.
Doha is a strong backer of Morsi's Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in the region, and Cairo accused Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for Morsi's supporters, although the broadcaster denied this.
Al-Jazeera issued a sharp statement Thursday.
"All three men have been under immense stress and pressure for the past nineteen months and delaying the final verdict has just continued the strain on them and their families," Acting Director General Mostefa Souag said.
Human rights groups had criticized the trial. Fahmy, who was bureau chief for just three months before being detained in December 2013, maintains that his team was doing balanced and independent reporting.
A dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen, Fahmy was asked to give up his Egyptian nationality by Egyptian officials in order to qualify for deportation. It's not clear why he was not then deported, but he said he thinks Canada could have pressed Cairo harder on the matter.
Angered at the network's handling of the case, Fahmy filed a lawsuit in Canada against it, saying that it put the story ahead of employee safety and used its Arabic-language channels to advocate for the Brotherhood, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Dubai.