Press conference on Peter Greste

  • Transcript (E&OE)

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you for joining meat such short notice. The Australian Government is shocked at the verdict inthe Peter Greste case. We are deeply dismayed by the fact that a sentence hasbeen imposed and we are appalled by the severity of it.

It is hard to credit that the court inthis case could have reached this conclusion. The Australian Government simplycannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case.Peter Greste is a well respected Australian journalist. He was in Egypt toreport on the political situation. He was not there to support the MuslimBrotherhood.

We respect the outcome of the recentelections in Egypt and we will now initiate contact at the highest levels inthe new Egyptian Government to see whether we can gain some kind ofintervention from the new government, and find out whether intervention isindeed possible at this stage.

I have spoken at length with PeterGreste's parents. They are considering their legal options, including appealoptions. We do not know how long an appeal process would take. But in themeantime, we will provide whatever consular assistance we can to Mr Greste andof course to his family.

We understand that Egypt has beenthrough some very difficult times and there has been a great deal of turmoil inEgypt, but this kind of verdict does nothing to support Egypt's claim to be ona transition to democracy, and the Australian Government urges the newgovernment of Egypt to reflect on what message is being sent to the world aboutthe situation in Egypt. Freedom and freedom of the press is fundamental to ademocracy and we are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broaderattempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Minister, do you considerthe Egyptian court independent of the Egyptian Government, and if you don't,will you take action against the Egyptian ambassador in Australia?

JULIE BISHOP: At this stage it's nothelpful for me to reflect on the Egyptian court or its independence as MrGreste is considering his options with regard to an appeal. But I make it clearthat we will initiate contact at the highest level within the new EgyptianGovernment to register our concerns and to see whether an intervention by theEgyptian President is possible at this stage.

JOURNALIST: Can you explain at all theappeal process from here and whether there is any sort of presidential, anymachinery for presidential intervention?

JULIE BISHOP: I understand from alegal perspective that upon the conclusion of an appeal, there is available tothe President a pardon. However, I'm wanting to initiate contact to see ifthere are any other grounds for intervention at an earlier stage.

JOURNALIST: Will you call in theambassador?

JULIE BISHOP: The Egyptian Ambassadorwill be speaking to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade tomorrow, wewill make contact. I will also be making contact with our Ambassador in Cairo,Dr Ralph King. At this stage Dr King is in contact with the Greste family, heis in contact with the Egyptian authorities, and I wish him to continue in thatrole while we undertake an investigation as to what is possible in terms of anintervention at this stage, and I do point out that the Greste family arecurrently conferring with their legal team as to what advice they will betaking in relation to an appeal.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just to clarify,your preference is to seek ways to have the conviction overturned rather thanto make a stand and to have Mr Greste pardoned?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, at this stagewe're seeing what intervention is possible. I have had many conversations withEgyptian authorities over the last few months and I have been informed in thepast that the whole legal process must run its course before the EgyptianPresident can consider a pardon.

We want to initiate contact at thisstage to see if an intervention at an earlier point in the legal proceedings ispossible. I expect that there will be considerable international commentary onthis matter. I expect that the Egyptian Government will come under a great dealof pressure from the international community. I want to see if there is apossibility for us to initiate a contact with the President to see if there canbe an earlier intervention.

JOURNALIST: And how would youcharacterise your level of confidence about that having effect, especiallytaking into account the higher level of engagement you've had so far aboutthis?

JULIE BISHOP: Most of our engagementhas been with the interim Egyptian Government since last December. My contactshave been with the former Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Fahmy. The newEgyptian Foreign Minister Shoukriwas only appointed last week. Myfirst contact with him was over the weekend. We had what I thought was a veryconstructive conversation and so I intend to follow that conversation up withanother call as soon as possible.

JOURNALIST: Was the PM surprisedbecause he seemed quite optimistic after his discussion?

JULIE BISHOP: Michelle, we are allshocked about this verdict, and that includes the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: Minister, earlier on youwere making representations through the Saudi channel as well. Was that notsuccessful and is that something you leave open to pursue this way again?

JULIE BISHOP: We have maderepresentations through a number of governments who we believe have influenceover Egypt or are closer to Egypt than the Australian Government, and that hasbeen not only in the Middle East but more broadly. And I know thatrepresentations have been made by Secretaries of State, Foreign Ministers andother high-level representatives from other countries to the highest levelswithin the interim Egyptian Government, and so we have been pressing theEgyptian Government over the Greste case for months now, including the PrimeMinister's personal phone call to the interim President and then his recentphone call to new President El-Sisi, and so we will continue to do that.

You will be aware that a number offoreign diplomats and government officials and Secretaries of State haveconfirmed publicly that they have made representations on behalf of Mr Gresteand other journalists, the Al Jazeera journalists who have also been convicted,and we will continue to call upon our friends and others in the region, othergovernments in the region whom we still believe have influence.

JOURNALIST: Is that concerning withinitself that all these representations have been made and still we have a sevenyear sentence?

JULIE BISHOP: The EgyptianGovernment's response to date has been that it is an independent judicialprocess and we must respect the independent judicial process. Now, in the caseof Australia, we say, yes, we do respect the independence of the judiciary,however, we are shocked by this verdict.

We are deeply disappointed that acourt could come to this decision and quite frankly we simply do not understandhow a court could have come to this decision based on the evidence of which wewere aware. The representatives of the Australian Government in Cairo haveattended the court hearings. We have had debriefings after every hearing. Therehave been, including today, 13 hearings. We have been in constant contact withPeter Greste and his lawyers and his family, and we simply cannot understandhow a court could come to this conclusion.

JOURNALIST: Minister, some of thesupporters of Peter Greste and his colleagues have expressed frustrationthrough this whole period. They said they didn't think the AustralianGovernment was doing enough soon enough and publicly enough. What do you say tothose people? Do you think you accepted the independence of the Egyptianjudiciary, and the arguments coming from Egypt too readily, should it have beendone sooner and would it have made any difference do you think?

JULIE BISHOP: I query what else weshould have done - personal phone calls between the Prime Minister of Australiaand the President of Egypt are not common occurrences in relation to a singlecourt case. I have had four conversations, one-on-one, personal conversationswith the relevant Egyptian foreign minister, the former and now the current. Ihave spoken personally to the Deputy Foreign Minister. Our Attorney-General hascontacted the Minister for Justice in Egypt in the previous government. We havemade contact with the Ambassador. Our ambassador in Cairo Dr Ralph King hasbeen constantly in touch with the Special Prosecutor, with whatever level ofgovernment he has been able to make contact.

I have been in contact and hadmeetings, one-on-one meetings with a range of ministers in other governmentsand asking them to make representations on our behalf. I cannot think ofanything more that we could have done. I'm bitterly disappointed with theoutcome, but I cannot think of what more we could have done, given that we havemade constant representations at the highest level within the EgyptianGovernment.

JOURNALIST: What does the Governmentnow recommend for other Australian journal, journalists looking to work inEgypt. Would you recommend that they put their plans on hold or how do you...

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I would certainlyrecommend that they seek advice on the current situation in Egypt. Now rememberthat this all arose at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was in fact thegovernment, and that Peter Greste was there to report on the activities of whatwas then a legitimate party.

It has since been declared a terroristorganisation in Egypt, and so the scenario has changed dramatically, so I wouldurge any journalist seeking to head to Egypt to take some advice on the currentsituation in Egypt and of course the Department of Foreign Affairs and Tradewould be only too happy to provide that.

JOURNALIST: From your initial contactwith the new administration in Egypt, how confident are you of their commitmentto democracy and free speech?

JULIE BISHOP: I can only go on the messaging that the new Egyptian Government hasbeen giving to the world, that they are transitioning to democracy, and wesupport that. They want an independent judiciary and we would support that. Ofcourse we have an independent judiciary and an independent legal process inAustralia and we hold our system up as a beacon of democracy in the world butwe are shocked by this decision in this case, knowing the evidence that waspresented before the court.

Iunderstand that the Grestes are looking at the prospects of an appeal and theywill be taking advice from their legal team. What the Australian Government cando is explore options for an intervention by the Egyptian Government.

JOURNALIST: Given all that's happenedthough, would you be optimistic or pessimistic that representation would haveany effect?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, Michelle, all Ican do is continue to make contact with the Egyptian Government at the highestlevel that we are able, and that is Presidential and Foreign Minister level. Itis a new government. We have made contact with the new government virtually assoon as they were sworn in to their new appointments, their new positions andwe will continue to do so.

JOURNALIST: The US Secretary of Stateis in Egypt at the moment. Are you seeking to have him make representations? Isthat possible, is that useful?

JULIE BISHOP: The US has been a verygood friend to Australia for some months in relation to this matter.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to PeterGreste's parents since this decision, what can you tell us about their frame ofmind? How are they holding up?

JULIE BISHOP: They are devastated, asyou would expect. They had been hoping that there would be a positive outcome,that their son would be released and able to come home as soon as possible andthat was the hope that they had held.

I have informed them of what theAustralian Government proposes to do and they indicated that they supported thecourse of action that we are adopting, that they have supported ourcontinuation of contact with the new Egyptian Government, and they hope thatthat will resolve the situation, but they are also mindful of the fact thatthere is a long appeal process ahead of them. Now, we don't know how long anappeal process will take. That's a matter for the legal team to advise, butit's fair to say that they are absolutely devastated by the verdict.

JOURNALIST: Peter Greste appears to becaught up in a conflict between Egypt and Qatar over a number of issues. Doesthat complicate things or make it easy?

JULIE BISHOP: This is a verycomplicated case, it is a very complex situation, and it's very difficult forus at this distance to understand all of the nuances and complexities of it,but you will appreciate that Al Jazeera is not the favourite news channel inEgypt, and so my fear is that Peter Greste was in the wrong place at the wrongtime. And we are doing what we can to have this Australian journalist broughthome as soon as possible, but of course we are shocked, utterly shocked by thisverdict.

JOURNALIST: That was my question aswell, but I will ask a different one instead. What does this say about theprogress in Egypt since the Arab Spring? Are they essentially back to wherethey were in 2010 now?

JULIE BISHOP: We respect the fact that there has been an election in Egypt. Werespect the fact that they claim to be on the road back to democracy,transitioning to democracy and I have been saying for the last six months ormore that we support the interim government's efforts to take that road back todemocracy. But to be a democracy, you must also respect international norms,and respect freedoms, and this verdict is hardly sending a message to theinternational community that Egypt is fulfilling that transition to democracy.

Butwe are prepared to work closely with the Egyptian Government to see if anintervention is possible so that we can get Peter Greste home as soon as we areable. Thank you.

Media enquiries