Moment that mattered: Peter Greste is released from prison
At the start of 2015 we spoke to journalist Peter Greste about his 400-day imprisonment
1st February 2015 (Taken from: #18)
This article was published in Delayed Gratification in March 2015
Peter Greste’s 400-day imprisonment ended suddenly. He was exercising, running up and down the 30-metre corridor which was the only refuge from his cell, when a guard called him over. “The boss wants to see you,” he said. Greste protested. He was sweaty from his run and he wanted to change first. “No,” insisted the guard. “You go now.”
When an Egyptian court sentenced Greste and two colleagues to prison on terrorism charges, the Australian journalist had never expected he would serve his full seven-year term. Still, as the months wore on, he grew increasingly pessimistic. “I had no idea my release was coming at all,” he says. When the prison’s head of investigations told him he had 30 minutes to pack his stuff and say his goodbyes, Greste recalls being “completely dumbfounded”.
A car from the Australian embassy picked Greste up. He was taken to the airport, where he met his brother Mike, and flew to Cyprus, where an embassy official took them to a hotel. “After everything we’ve been through, to have such an anticlimactic arrival was very strange,” Greste says. “I expected something more dramatic, some moment of freedom, but there wasn’t anything like that.”
Greste had only been in Cairo for a few days, covering for a colleague over Christmas when, on 29th December 2013, Egyptian police raided Al Jazeera English’s temporary TV studio. Greste, normally the news network’s East Africa correspondent, was arrested together with the Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy. Baher Mohamed, a freelance producer, was detained at his home shortly afterwards.
On 23rd June 2014, following a four month-long trial which was widely considered to be politically motivated, Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in jail. The prosecution alleged that the journalists had been aiding the Muslim Brotherhood – which had been declared a terrorist organisation just days before their arrests – and had been spreading false news reports. Baher Mohamed got an additional three years for possession of ammunition – a spent bullet casing he had picked up from the ground at a protest.
The problem with prison is that you have this big, amorphous blob of time… It can eat you up
Three months after his release, in a café in Clapham, south London, Greste remembers his sentencing as “a very bad day”. “We all felt that we might end up having to spend a long stretch behind bars,” he says. A day after his release, he told Al Jazeera that, “touch wood”, his incarceration had not damaged him too much. Today, he is still optimistic. “I’ve seen the effects of PTSD on a lot of people and I know that this thing can sometimes take time to come up and bite you in the ass,” he says. “I’ve been keeping an eye out for symptoms, but I don’t feel damaged [by my time in prison]. In a way, I feel a lot stronger for it.”
Greste says that his own resilience took him by surprise. But he doesn’t think others would have responded differently. “Everyone who followed the case has at some point probably wondered how they would cope if they were in my situation, and most of them probably suspect that they wouldn’t do very well. I’d have said the same thing,” he says. “But I’ve been through it and I know that I’m actually far stronger than I ever imagined. I don’t think I’m anyone special, I’ve just had the opportunity to find out.”
“The problem with prison,” he continues, “is that you have this big, amorphous blob of time. If you don’t do something with it, it can eat you up. I tried very hard to focus on keeping fit physically, mentally and spiritually.” Greste and his colleagues kept up an exercise regime. He tried to run every day and followed the 5BX programme, an 11-minute routine of five basic exercises developed by the Canadian Air Force. He meditated every day and enrolled in a course in international relations. With help from the Australian embassy, a Queensland university shipped him a huge box of academic papers and lecture notes. “I did it the old-fashioned way,” he says. “I’d write out questions by hand with a pencil and gave them to the embassy when they came to visit. They emailed them to my lecturer, who would send back a response the following week.”
A few days after his release, Greste flew to Australia where he was greeted by a large crowd of wellwishers and journalists at Brisbane airport. “It was just staggering,” he recalls. While in prison, Greste had heard about the #FreeAJStaff campaign. He knew journalists from rival news organisations had stuck tape over their mouths on air. He had heard that Ban Ki-moon, Barack Obama and John Kerry had all mentioned the case. “My family often said ‘You just don’t really understand how big this is’. And I kept saying, ‘I think I do, because I’m a journalist – of course I understand what’s going on’. But I had absolutely no idea just how massive the campaign was. The number of politicians, our colleagues – even rivals who would normally rather eat their own babies than acknowledge the opposition – got involved with it.”
Greste’s joy at being reunited with his family was tempered by the uncertain fates of Mohamed and Fahmy. A court of cassation had overturned all three convictions on 1st January and ordered a retrial, but when Greste was deported from Egypt, his colleagues remained in prison. Both were released on bail on 13th February but cannot leave Egypt. Greste has been in regular touch with Mohamed who, unlike Greste and Fahmy, does not have a non-Egyptian nationality to help him. “He’s under enormous pressure. He’s got a wife and kids. At the same time, his friends and extended family are keeping their distance because he’s an accused terrorist.”
Greste is not yet out of the woods himself, as he faces a retrial in absentia, set to resume this summer. While the risks of another conviction are lower for him than his colleagues, a renewed sentence might bar him from travelling to countries which have an extradition treaty with Egypt, including large chunks of the Middle East and the African Union. He is concerned about a trial in which he cannot defend himself. “I’m in this weird position of not being allowed to be there because I was kicked out of the country under a presidential decree, but also being demanded to be there by the judge,” he says. “I’m not on the run, I’m not hostile to the court. I want to help them come to a conclusion and find justice.”
When we meet in mid-May, Greste still hasn’t been back to Nairobi – the city he called home before his arrest in Cairo – and he doesn’t know when he will sleep in his own bed again. “There have just been so many other things to do. It’s funny how you realise that life spins on a dime. I’m now one of the best-known journalists in Australia and I still don’t understand quite why. It’s more because of what was done to me than anything I’ve done,” he says. He has become an avid campaigner for press freedom. “I’m getting microphones, stages, cameras. People seem to be paying attention so I need to use this opportunity.”
For now, though, Greste’s main focus is on maintaining public interest in the retrial. He is worried that people are forgetting. “There’s been a lot of euphoria around my release, but it’s taken away from the core issue that we are still on trial,” he says. “There is an injustice that was done and needs to be corrected. We need to make sure that people understand that if they got involved in the case the first time round, all that work will have gone to waste unless we get acquittals. We need to make sure we follow through.”
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