CAIRO // Opposition politician and chairman of the liberal Al Ghad party Ayman Nour was released from prison yesterday after spending more than three years behind bars on forgery charges, which he claimed were politically motivated. A statement issued by the prosecutor's office said Mr Nour, 44, had been released for health reasons. Mena, Egypt's official news agency, reported that the general prosecutor had issued a decree for the release of nine defendants for health reasons, including Mr Nour.
In a telephone interview from his home in Cairo, Mr Nour said his release was sudden and unexpected but that he was relieved. "I just found myself at home, I don't know how, or why, I have no idea ? I'm still in my prison clothes, I haven't even changed them yet. "They [the authorities] told me I had to go, right away. My belongings are still at prison, there was no time to collect them." Mr Nour said he intends to continue working in politics and that his experience in prison has made him more determined to push for democracy in Egypt.
"I'll do all what I used to do before going to prison in December 2005. I emerged stronger from prison, I have the same steadfastness, faith and beliefs and will carry on with my path of political work and the struggle for democracy," he said. "After spending more than three years in prison, I have nothing to fear." Alaa al Aswany, an Egyptian novelist and democracy activist, welcomed Mr Nour's release.
"The release of Ayman Nour is great news - anybody [like Mr Nour] getting out of prison is wonderful news," he said. Mr Nour suffers from diabetes and heart problems that have led to hospitalisation on several occasions and he repeatedly appealed for release from prison on medical grounds. Mr Nour was initially imprisoned in Jan 2005 on charges of forging powers of attorney in order to bring about the formation of his Al Ghad party - charges he has denied.
Two months later, in March 2005, a visiting delegation of Ministers of the European Parliament, led by Edward McMillan-Scott, the parliament's vice president, succeeded in having Mr Nour freed. In September of that year, Mr Nour ran against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first contested presidential elections, though he finished a distant second. Three months later, in December, he was sentenced to five years in prison for electoral fraud, sparking an international outcry and allegations that the charges were fabricated to punish him for running against Mr Mubarak, who has ruled the most populous Arab country since 1981.
The US said at the time it was "deeply troubled" by the conviction and Mr Nour's imprisonment has remained a source of tension between the two countries since. Former US president George W Bush raised the issue on several occasions in meetings with Egyptian officials and even addressed Mr Nour's case publicly in a 2007 speech in the Czech Republic. In response to Mr Nour's release yesterday, the US state department said: "It is to be welcomed. It is something we have called for for some time."
Edward McMillan-Scott, the European Parliament vice president who was instrumental in getting Mr Nour freed in March 2005, hailed his release as "fantastic news" but said he should never have been imprisoned in the first place. "I am delighted that this courageous and distinguished Egyptian democrat has now found belated freedom," he said in a telephone interview. "Nour was in prison on ludicrous charges, which even the EU condemns ? He should never have been in prison at any time - as the international community recognises, as well as millions of Egyptians."
Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said Mr Nour's release was a "half step forward" but urged Mr Mubarak to go further and annul the original conviction, noting that Egyptian law prohibits Mr Nour from retaking public office without a presidential pardon. In doing so, he said, Mr Nour would "be able to regain his right to practise politics and go back to being the legitimate leader of the Al Ghad party, in a way that would allow for the real, peaceful transfer of power in free elections".
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian dissident and professor of sociology who is in self-exile in the US, said he was "heartened" by the decision to release Mr Nour and suggested it was precipitated by an editorial in the Washington Post on Monday that addressed US-Arab relations. The editorial said US President Barack Obama should not grant Mr Mubarak an "unconditional invitation" and should tell the Egyptian president "he will be welcome at the White House as soon as the charges against Mr. Ibrahim are dropped and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour is released from prison".