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Peter Greste has become an innocent pawn in Egypt’s propaganda war, his parents collateral damage. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Peter Greste’s cruel imprisonment in Egypt

Caged inside a Cairo court, Australian journalist Peter Greste before his sentencing this week.
Credit: EPA

We know what Peter Greste’s arrest looked like, because Egyptian authorities filmed it. Not to be tabled as evidence in the trial that followed but to be set to music.

On the tape broadcast over state-sponsored television networks, the raid plays out against the score of Hollywood blockbuster Thor: The Dark World, a heavy and portentous soundtrack, all quivering strings and bass drums. The orchestral swelling was designed to grease a sense of awe, pride and occasion in the viewer. While we may have come to know Greste and his colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed as the “Al Jazeera journalists”, the Egyptian government referred to them as the “Marriott Cell”, a vaguely sinister designation which, in a country where the judiciary is in thrall to the government, will never be considered prejudicial.

It was in late December 2013 that Peter Greste joined his two colleagues in Cairo. On the evening of the 29th, Egyptian authorities raided their hotel room, seized equipment and arrested the men. They were charged with working with a terrorist organisation – the Muslim Brotherhood – and of broadcasting deliberately false news about Egypt. It’s important to note here that this raid was just one part of an enormous project of silencing journalists and activists, most of them local.

Greste had established a crude but workable studio in their room at Cairo’s Marriott Hotel. Cameras, laptops, microphones and other instruments of broadcast journalism stuffed the room. There were papers, pens, cables and bottled water. It was in that room that they edited their footage, and wrote and recorded scripts for their pieces to camera. In the room was also a spent bullet cartridge – a sobering relic pocketed by Baher Mohamed from Tahrir Square, a site of multiple violent protests.

The three had been sent by their employer, Al Jazeera English, to record the spasms of the Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring, by now warping and buckling in strange ways all across the Middle East. In Egypt the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had acquiesced with the West in a long-running game of mutual flattery, had finally been toppled. It was the apogee of the Spring, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians risked brutality to demand his resignation. Those were hopeful days, the revolution of 2011, but when Greste arrived in December 2013, Panglossian wishes were vanquished. The first popularly elected prime minister in Egyptian history gratefully filled the vacuum left by Mubarak’s dramatic departure. His name was Mohamed Morsi, and he represented the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi performed stump speeches promising transparency and responsiveness, but once in power he cravenly sought the same feudal powers as his predecessor. His popularity slumped, and the military – who have historically been contemptuous of the Brotherhood – staged a coup. They arrested Morsi, installed an interim military leader, and murderously quelled pro-Morsi protests. Retaliatory shootings and bombings have since occurred. In late March this year, former military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was popularly elected president. Very popularly, in fact: he attracted more than 95 per cent of the vote in an election characterised as “troubled” by international observers.

After news of the long-awaited journalists’ trial verdict came through this week – in Greste’s case a sentence of seven years’ jail – our foreign minister, Julie Bishop, lamented that the men were in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is not only platitudinous, but also wrong. If Bishop believes them to be in the wrong place, I would wonder where, exactly, she expects foreign correspondents to be. No, they were precisely where they needed to be: bearing witness to Egypt’s tumult – a cycle of autocracies, violently sustained and desperate to anoint themselves with chimerical claims of popular mandate. Egypt correspondent Peter Hessler described the country’s politics as being “like a lightning-fast sport, played very badly” and consisting of two major and opposed factions – the Islamists and the army – who share an antipathy towards formal parties.

Lois and Juris

Lois Greste had always enjoyed swimming, but it now had a significant therapeutic quality. In the six months her son has been imprisoned – subject to a fitful, farcical trial – Lois regularly escaped to the local pool. Choosing her lane, she tried to empty her mind as she followed the black line on the pool’s bottom. “It is very meditative,” she told me.

Juris Greste has transposed his fretful energy into speeches, social media, and a ravenous consumption of news, both domestic and international. He kept himself usefully busy – they both have – but has grown increasingly fatigued and nauseous. On the second of May this year, Juris read a speech written by Peter to a gathering of journalists. It opened with an excoriating bit of irony: “Greetings to you all on World Press Freedom day from Mulhaq Al Masra prison in Cairo.”

One month earlier, a speech Juris had written about his son’s captivity was read at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, a world away in New York City. “We are pleased to share with you our belief that Peter remains not only psychologically and spiritually strong, but also physically. The imprisonment experience has been highly stressful, even traumatising, not only for Peter but the whole family. Painful, regrettable and unnecessary as it has been, we also believe that we have all grown as a result of it and learned something about ourselves and one another.”

Not long after I first met the Grestes at their home in Brisbane, Juris sent me a number of musings on the situation. His sense of pride, injustice, frustration and intelligence came through. “I am not discovering any new profundity, but clearly journalists operating in an unintimidated and unmuzzled way are the eyes of history. Now, writers of history draw upon a mosaic of sources – yet journalism, be it in the style and method of Dickens or Tolstoy, [is still a source] for historians.”

Juris regretfully explained to me the suffering experienced by a wide number of the extended family, and he kept stressing the importance and dignity of his son’s inner or intellectual life – Peter was being kept from his sustaining triumvirate: language, music and nature.

Peter Greste tried to keep usefully busy, too. There are no cooking facilities in his cell, so his knowledge of food preparation was useful. He asked his brothers – when total bans weren’t in place – to bring him some spices, preserved lemons, pickled vegetables, olives. It was all to improve the dispiritingly bland food they were served. “If you want to have any life in Egyptian incarceration,” Juris told me, “your families sustain you – otherwise the food they give you will drive you nuts. But having the supplies is one thing, knowing what to do with it is another.”

The elderly Grestes have had to summon enormous strength in light of the trial. In fact, strength doesn’t do it justice. Something like psychic deftness, a rubberiness of the soul, to help respond to a trial of such demeaning absurdity. When asked by the court to provide evidence for the false broadcasts, the prosecution could only table video and photos of Greste’s family vacation in Africa. On multiple days of the trial, Greste was not provided with a translator. Just weeks before the verdict, his lawyer walked out. Baher Mohamed’s souvenir – the spent cartridge – was classified as a weapon, and offered in the court as an aggravating feature of the charges. So cartoonishly wretched was this trial that there was a broad sense it could not possibly end with a guilty verdict. It was all too ludicrous – such were our deep-seated suppositions about justice. But this week, guilty it was.

US embarassment

Just before the verdict, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was playing the necessary game of strategic flattery, saying of the Egyptian president: “This is, sure, a general, but a general who has studied in both the United States and the United Kingdom, so he is certainly someone who is familiar with the rule of law and the ordinary norms of justice.” Earlier, in a 20-minute conversation with acting Egyptian president Adly Mansour, Abbott said: “As far as the Australian government is concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood is, if not exactly a terrorist organisation, it certainly at times has been a friend of terrorist organisations and for that reason I have a lot of sympathy with the Egyptian government.”

In exquisitely weird timing, US secretary of state John Kerry visited his counterpart in Cairo the day before the Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced. He announced his desire to restore their respective country’s “historic partnership” – meaning that Kerry was confident that the US would thaw their freeze on military aid to Egypt. Kerry didn’t go as far as he had in the past, where he had expressed belief that Egypt was sincerely correcting its authoritarianism and was set on a course of enlightened democracy, but he did treat Egypt as an old friend coming back in from the cold.

Less than 24 hours later, Egypt had quite publicly and deliberately contradicted Kerry’s faith. Embarrassed, Kerry issued his own statement. “Injustices like these simply cannot stand,” he said. It raises questions about Kerry’s astuteness, as it does speculation about whether Egypt gave Kerry deceitful assurances about the outcome of the trial. Regardless, it sent a grave message: Egypt will bruise the US, and risk becoming an international pariah, in favour of tamping internal dissent and waging its proxy war against Qatar, where Al Jazeera is headquartered. Mubarak was rarely so brazen.

Family disbelief

Juris and Lois were following proceedings from Brisbane, via Twitter and a Skype link to their other two sons who were in Cairo. They broke down. “It’s crazy, just crazy,” Juris said, rising suddenly from his chair. There were TV cameras there – presumably to record a tender celebration – but when the shocking verdict came through, Lois tremblingly asked them to leave. The tape goes black.

At 10am the following morning, on Tuesday, Juris and Lois called a press conference. Again, there was their sense of quiet dignity, unknowingly but powerfully radiated. They looked even more tired than when I first saw them in April. They had slept terribly the night before; Juris’s eyes were red, and seemed small relative to the swollen bags beneath them. “We’re not normally a family of superlatives,” Juris said sombrely. “But I have to say my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are… This is a slap in the face and a kick in the groin of Australia and all fair-minded people.”

Juris then held up a large photo of his son receiving a professional recognition. “Our son is an award-winning journalist. He is not a criminal. He is not a criminal.” In response to a question about how she thought her son would receive the news, Lois began to cry a little before restraining herself. She took a moment, and her husband leaned over and put his arm around her. At this point you could hear a flurry of digital shutters blinking.

I sent my regards to Juris and Lois via email. They were much too pained and confused to speak. A day later, Juris dropped me a line. “It is an overwhelming time. We seem to be hit by one big wave after another.”

Peter Greste and his colleagues can appeal the decision, but they will do so in a sluggish and corrupt system, and one that shortly breaks for summer. The soonest they might begin an appeal process is September, and then it’s expected to take months, perhaps years, to resolve itself. How long it will take Egypt to resolve itself after that is another question entirely.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "Journalism is not a crime". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.