Australia to Pressure Egypt Over Jailed Al Jazeera Journalists

Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste in court in Cairo.

The parents of Australian journalist Peter Greste, who was sentenced to seven years in prison by a Cairo court, spoke out against the decision, saying they will continue working for his freedom.

SYDNEY – Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will lodge a formal diplomatic level request with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to see whether he can intervene on the conviction Monday of three Al Jazeera English journalists, including Australian reporter Peter Greste.

While condemnation of the jail sentences meted out to the trio was swift from political, journalism and human rights organizations worldwide, Greste’s parents, Juris and Lois, said at a press conference from their home in Brisbane on Tuesday that they would continue to fight not just for the release of their son and his colleagues, but for freedom of the press.

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“We are devastated, shocked and dismayed at this finding. We are not usually a family of superlatives, but I have to say this morning my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are,” Juris Greste said.

“Of course we were hoping for something entirely different. Although we considered a range of other outcomes, you can never prepare yourself for something as painful as this. However, we are absolutely determined and committed to continue this battle until Peter, as well as his colleagues, are all out of prison and free to do and go wherever they decide.”

“Journalism is not a crime or you should all be behind bars. It's as simple as that. This man, our son, Peter, is an award-winning journalist. He is not a criminal,” he added.

Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were reporting for the network's English-language news channel when they were detained last December, accused of spreading false news and conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Al Jazeera and the journalists have strenuously denied the charges. Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohamend received a 10-year sentence for carrying a spent gun shell, which he had picked up off the street.  An additional six Al Jazeera journalists received sentences in absentia.

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Bishop said that the government would continue to make formal diplomatic representations to the newly elected Egyptian president. However, under Egyptian law the president cannot consider clemency or a pardon until such time as the legal proceedings have concluded, including an appeal. "But we are hoping that there may be other options available to the president,” Bishop said.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that while Australian government respects the legitimacy of the Egyptian government and its judicial processes: “We are shocked and dismayed by the Greste decision."

Both Greste’s parents and Bishop said the sentence was a shock, given they’d received advice from Egyptian authorities that the sentencing was likely to have gone in another direction.

 “I don't want to—well, I don't want to suggest that anybody has been misleading us. But clearly the messages that we did get from the Egyptian authorities did truly give us great confidence for other possible outcomes,” Juris Greste said.

Bishop added that such a sentence was inconceivable given the evidence presented in court.

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“I am shocked given the evidence we have seen to date, and I had been told on many occasions by Egyptian government officials that we had to respect the independence of the Egyptian judicial system—that they had a strong and robust system,” Bishop told the ABC’s morning program.

“It’s clearly independent of the representations we have been making to the Egyptian government, but on the evidence we have seen we just cannot understand [how] the court could come to that verdict.”

Greste's family and their lawyers will discuss an appeal in the coming days.

Former Australian ambassador to Egypt Dr. Robert Bowker said that Al Jazeera journalists seem to be the victims of political infighting in the region over the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Jazeera’s owner, the state of Qatar’s support of the organization.

“I thought that the factors that were going to shape this decision would be based around the political environment that has developed over the last year—the anxieties that surround the role of Al Jazeera, the contest between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world; and on the Egyptian side, the need for ongoing financial support from Saudi Arabia, which I think el-Sisi was determined not to prejudice,” he told ABC TV on Monday.

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), an Australian journalists union, condemned the verdict of the Cairo court and called on Egyptian authorities to “urgently intervene to free the three journalists who have been detained for simply doing their jobs.”

“The verdict of the court, despite the lack of evidence and bizarre court proceedings over more than a dozen hearings, is an appalling attack on press freedom and carries an implicit threat to all media working in Egypt,” MEAA said.