Exclusive from Cairo: Greste’s family speaks out

The sentencing of an Al Jazeera news crew including Australian-Latvian dual citizen Peter Greste on charges of false reporting and aiding a terrorist organization has drawn international condemnation. 

Latvian Television's (LTV) Linda Bagone met with his parents, Louise and Juris Greste in separate exclusive interviews Saturday to find out how the couple are fighting to free their son.

Peter Greste was born in 1965 in Sydney as the first child of Latvian Juris and Australian Louise. After Latvia regained its independence, Peter was the only one of the Greste sons to apply for dual Latvian citizenship. He has worked in hot spots around the world, including Afghanistan and Kenya.

As an Al Jazeera reporter Peter worked from various African countries. Last Christmas Peter traded field assignments with a colleague who needed the vacation time. But the temporary gig turned out to be fateful.

“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Egyptian businessman and public representative of Latvia’s Investment and Development Agency (LIAA) in Egypt Gamal el Aguizi told LTV.

Latvia’s Ambassador to Egypt Iveta Šulca told LTV that the next step in the legal proceedings is a review of the process for violations. If such are found, the case goes to retrial. Šulca said it was quite possible that a number of irregularities in the widely criticized trial could be used as grounds for a retrial.

Meanwhile, Juris Greste hopes the prison warden will allow Peter to pursue distance education from Brisbane. This would help him spend his days without freedom more usefully. They also still hope to get permission for Peter to send letters. That’s a new one for the prison administration – no prisoner has ever made such a request before.

Peter’s parents and younger brothers do not miss a single one of their regularly scheduled 45-minute visits with him every two weeks, jetting to and from their homes in Australia on rotation to do so.

Moreover, their visits must never become too emotional, for there are legal issues to talk through and resolve. Yet the parents are able to see some good in all the turmoil the family is facing – they’ve become even tighter and they have the immeasurable networked support of strangers around the world as well as world leaders themselves.

LTV: Your son Peter Greste’s work is to find and report the news, now his family members, you among them, have become a part of that very news. Had you ever, before the events at the turn of the year (his arrest and detention), ever had doubts about your son’s work?

Juris Greste: From the day he took his first assignment to Afghanistan, it’s clear we’ve been concerned and doubtful, but we’re the kind of parents who are convinced that each of us must follow their chosen path.

We knew Egypt’s politics weren’t stable and Peter himself expressed no desire to come to this city, he’d already made plans to spend Christmas with his friends and neighbors, but he’s very loyal and realized that other colleagues had helped him out on other occasions. So he chose instead to accept the assignment.

How did you find out about his arrest?

We were getting ready for dinner and Michael, Peter’s youngest brother called with the news he’d been arrested in Egypt. At first it was clear that it was upsetting, but we assume that journalists do get arrested every day in some numbers all around the world.

At what point did you realize how serious it was?

I must say when we got the accusations against them, because we had to wait three or four weeks for that.

Your sons Andrew and Micheal were here in Cairo before, now you and your wife have taken over the baton. What are your feelings while spending time here, knowing that your son Peter is always to be found in that one, narrowly enclosed territory?

Every time we arrive at that prison it seems like a huge fortress. Coming out of there we want to pinch ourselves and see if wasn’t all just a nightmare. Unfortunately, it’s more than just a nightmare. The whole process is really quite hard and gloomy.

I must say since the first two weeks his situation has improved notably. For instance, he’s now in a room with five or six others, he gets time outside to breath – can’t say the clear Cairo air – but at least he gets to see the sun and sky. A few days a week he can go out to a bigger field and get some exercise.

Even if he had no close kin nearby, clearly they wouldn’t let him starve to death, but what they do give is loathsome, quite minimal. Even the prison clothing is supplied by families.

You mean you bought your son’s prison uniform?

You know, these pants were bought for him, but they were just too large so I got them. Clothes have to be supplied and laundered. Also, fortunately, they allow next of kin to bring in certain food products to improve the diet. Peter’s an avid cook and uses small bits of ingredients creatively, so we bring them in each time.

How does he manage to stay emotionally strong?

He hasn’t been broken. I’d like to think he’s inherited my genes and character, on both my parents’ side there’s been generations that have suffered heavily; born in Siberia, survived the famines of the revolution, our mom bringing us out after the war as orphans to Germany, to Australia. Our blood has perseverance in it and Peter, you could say, looks philosophically at his situation as it is and that life must go on. There are things, there are conditions about which he can do nothing and they are not worth getting sorrowful or upset about.

Though you and Peter are strong, I presume your visits do get emotional.

We’ve only been allowed 45 minutes per visit so far and we try to use the time as effectively as possible. Each visit has its agenda. The most important things we talk over first, the minor details leave to the end. We watch our watches. It’s very emotional, but… The first one was very painful, the second and third visits too. The first visit was just a week after the verdict was clarified.

That first meeting day he barely even grasped what had happened. That was truly a huge hit to hear that he’s getting seven years in this land’s jail for having done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever.

But life is full of risks…

…but you haven’t lost hope?

No, we haven’t lost hope. What would life be without hope?

 

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