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Egypt frees civil rights leaders in "extremely odd" move, and many are thanking Scarlett Johansson

Cairo — Three senior staff members of a prominent Egyptian civil rights organization were released suddenly on Thursday night as their detention on terrorism charges drove a mounting outcry from some big names in the West. Many Egyptians lauded Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson on Friday for speaking out, suggesting the actress' message of solidarity may have helped prompt the trio's release.

The three senior members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) were arrested last month and held until Thursday evening on charges of "joining a terrorist group and spreading false news." Karim Ennarah, director of EIPR's criminal justice unit, administrative manager Mohamed Basheer and Executive Director Gasser Abdel Razek were arrested a couple weeks after hosting a meeting between EIPR and about a dozen ambassadors and senior diplomats from European countries to discuss human rights issues. 

The organization said it believed that meeting was at least one factor behind their arrest.

On Thursday evening, the EIPR said plainclothes police officers had visited the registered address of the group's founder and acting director, Hossam Bahgat, the previous night for the second day in a row, asking where he was. The visits to the home of Bahgat's mother raised fears that he might soon join his colleagues behind bars.

But he tweeted not long after the EIPR messages were posted to confirm that he was fine — and free. He also made it clear that he doesn't live with his mother, having moved out 22 years ago.

Then headlines about the release of Baghat's three colleagues' release started appearing in local pro-government newspapers. The reports said the public prosecutor had released the men pending an investigation, after legal procedures were initiated to change EIPR's legal status from a for-profit company to an association, in accordance with relevant laws.

EIPR announced on Wednesday that it had submitted a formal letter to Egypt's Minister of Social Solidarity seeking "to transfer all its current activities from under a limited liability company to a non-profit entity." That appeared to address one of the complaints Egyptian authorities had made about EIPR's activities, but nothing relevant to the accusation of "terrorist activities" or fake news.

The group also wrote another letter thanking the Ministry of Interior for allowing relatives of two of their jailed staff members to visit them in jail for the first time since their arrest in mid-November. Former member of parliament Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat accompanied the family members on their visit. A third letter was addressed to the public prosecutor, appealing for men's release and citing the official request for a change of classification made to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.      

Unconfirmed reports of the men's release swirled Thursday evening until EIPR came out and said that Sadat, the former parliamentarian, had confirmed to them that their colleagues would in fact be set free within hours.

"They just opened the door of the prison and told them you are out, you are released," Ragia Omran, a lawyer on EIPR's defense team told CBS News. "They walked them to the end of the street, and I don't know if they gave them money or just put them in a cab, and that was it."

"They didn't go to the security directorate or the police station and get released from there, which is the usual practice," noted Omran. "What happened today is extremely odd in my experience… We still don't know if the case will be dropped completely or what's going to happen, we will find that out on Saturday when we go to the prosecutor's office."

Bahgat then tweeted confirmation himself, saying: "I can confirm my friends and @eipr colleagues Gasser, Basheer and Karim have been released and are home which I guess means we (and you) managed to #FreeEIPRstaff."

"By 'you' I obviously mean Scarlett," Bahgat joked in a follow-up tweet.

The Hollywood superstar was only one of a handful of prominent actors and Western politicians to pile public pressure on the Egyptian government this week over the civil rights leaders' arrest. Western diplomats, along with Egyptian politicians and lawyers had also been pushing quietly in Cairo for the men's immediate release. 

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor welcomed their release in a tweet, adding a call for Egypt "to continue on this path of releasing human rights defenders."

But it was Johansson's intervention that appeared to capture the attention of many Egyptians.

Her name was trending on social media in Egypt on Friday, with many comments hailing her willingness to take a stand, although some others questioned her motives.

The comments ranged from earnest appreciation to the somewhat farcical: One Egyptian asked Johansson, for instance, to tell the government to make the size of subsidized bread loaves bigger, while others just asked the actress, who keeps a relatively small online profile, to post more videos.  

At least two senior U.S. lawmakers, and the possible incoming Secretary of State also lent their support to EIPR's cause, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee described the men's release as "a positive step forward for Egypt," and urged all charges to be dropped. 

But it was Johansson's intervention that seemed to get some Egyptians' hackles up, including a prominent actress who scolded the American for her dalliance in Egyptian affairs.

In a video posted to Twitter, Laila Ezz El-Arab accused Johansson of having "no clue" what she was talking about, suggested the three activists were never "detainees," and vouched for the country's justice system, "that we trust very much."

She urged Johansson to leave Egypt alone and focus, "on the United States' problems, like Black Lives Matter, like battered women," and poverty. She posted the video to Twitter with the hashtag, #ScarlettJohansson_interfering_in_egyptian_affairs.

But another Egyptian movie star, Amr Waked, who starred alongside Johansson in the 2014 movie "Lucy" and now lives in self-exile for his political views, expressed gratitude for her stance but has made it clear that the release of EIPR staff is not enough. 

"The release of EIPR employees is a beautiful thing, but it is not enough," Waked said in a tweet, adding that the charges must be dropped, and all other prisoners should be released. "Enough injustice."   

Egypt's President El-Sisi denies holding political prisoners 01:06
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