An Australian journalist is released after more than a year in Egyptian prison
Al Jazeera correspondent was convicted, alongside two colleagues, of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood
Peter Greste says he felt a "real mix of emotions" upon his release
It started like any other of Peter Greste’s 400 days in captivity.
The Australian journalist, held in an Egyptian prison since December 2013, was exercising when the prison warden beckoned him over and told him that he needed to get ready to leave.
“Pack your stuff,” he was told. Confused, he asked the warden what he meant – was he being transferred to another prison?
“He said: ‘You’re going… the embassy’s coming, they’ll be here in an hour, so get your stuff and go,’” Greste told his network, Al Jazeera, in an interview with correspondent Stefanie Dekker in Cyprus.
Mix of emotions
“I can’t tell you that real mix of emotions that was boiling inside,” said Greste.
“It’s a relief and excitement but also real, real stress at having to say goodbye to my colleagues and friends, the people who have really become family inside that prison.”
Having experienced “an awful lot of false starts with this, and an awful lot of false alarms,” Greste hadn’t wanted to set his faith in the Egyptian system until he was safely out of the country.
But once he had his “backside into a seat on the plane,” the relief was palpable.
However, his joy was tempered by the fact he was leaving behind fellow Al Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed.
All three were convicted of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, but have maintained their innocence.
In addition, another seven were convicted in absentia alongside the journalists.
“I feel incredible angst about my colleagues, leaving them behind,” said Greste.
“Amidst all of this relief I still feel a sense of concern, a real sense of worry because … if it’s right for me to be free, then it’s right for all of them to be free.”
After spending more than a year in such close proximity – “in a box” – Greste says deep bonds were forged, making “the moment of walking out of that prison, saying goodbye to those guys” much more conflicted.
“Over that period I’ve got to know them… as family,” he said. “They’re my brothers. It couldn’t be any other way.”
Still, he says that his release is a positive step, and he hopes that it signals a change in direction from the Egyptian government.
Optimism for colleagues’ release
“The sense of euphoria, of optimism is so overwhelming,” Greste said.
“What’s very clear is that … for Egypt too this is a big step forward. I think everyone has acknowledged that this is a very important moment and I just hope Egypt keeps going down this path with the others.”
Sue Turton, an Al Jazeera English senior correspondent who was sentenced in absentia in Greste’s trial, spoke to CNN’s Hala Gorani about the possible release of the network’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy.
Fahmy had needed to take the drastic measure of renouncing his Egyptian citizenship in his bid for freedom, she said.
“He has now renounced that citizenship,” she said.
“He was really coerced to do so. He was told by the Egyptian authorities that if this was going to happen he was going to have to give away his Egyptian passport.”
It represented an extreme step for the journalist, who came “from a very patriotic, proud military family,” she said.
“This is a big deal for him. This isn’t just a question of saying, ‘Oh well. I’ll just take a Canadian passport and that’ll be that.’
“Now we’re getting quite a lot of diplomatic messages through that it sounds like really his release is very imminent and he is pretty soon hopefully going to be on a plane headed to Canada.”
Meanwhile, Greste’s parents spoke to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about his release. His mother, Lois Greste, says that they initially weren’t sure that the email that informed them of his release could be trusted.
“It was pretty difficult to take it in, that this was really going to happen,” she said. “But then a couple of hours later we got a call from Peter to say that he in the airport and about to hop onto the plane.”
His father, Juris, confirmed that his son’s release was a wholly unexpected development.
“He was just as surprised as anybody that he was asked to pack his small amount of gear and be ready to leave,” he said, smiling.
And now he’s free? “Juris suggested I put him over my knee and give him a whack,” said his mother, laughing.
But, she conceded, “foreign correspondents have a habit” of worrying their parents.