JULIE BISHOP: Thank you for joining me at such short notice. The Australian Government is shocked at the verdict in the Peter Greste case. We are deeply dismayed by the fact that a sentence has been imposed and we are appalled by the severity of it.
It is hard to credit that the court in this case could have reached this conclusion. The Australian Government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case. Peter Greste is a well respected Australian journalist. He was in Egypt to report on the political situation. He was not there to support the Muslim Brotherhood.
We respect the outcome of the recent elections in Egypt and we will now initiate contact at the highest levels in the new Egyptian Government to see whether we can gain some kind of intervention from the new government, and find out whether intervention is indeed possible at this stage.
I have spoken at length with Peter Greste's parents. They are considering their legal options, including appeal options. We do not know how long an appeal process would take. But in the meantime, we will provide whatever consular assistance we can to Mr Greste and of course to his family.
We understand that Egypt has been through some very difficult times and there has been a great deal of turmoil in Egypt, but this kind of verdict does nothing to support Egypt's claim to be on a transition to democracy, and the Australian Government urges the new government of Egypt to reflect on what message is being sent to the world about the situation in Egypt. Freedom and freedom of the press is fundamental to a democracy and we are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you consider the 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 not helpful for me to reflect on the Egyptian court or its independence as Mr Greste is considering his options with regard to an appeal. But I make it clear that we will initiate contact at the highest level within the new Egyptian Government to register our concerns and to see whether an intervention by the Egyptian President is possible at this stage.
JOURNALIST: Can you explain at all the appeal process from here and whether there is any sort of presidential, any machinery for presidential intervention?
JULIE BISHOP: I understand from a legal perspective that upon the conclusion of an appeal, there is available to the President a pardon. However, I'm wanting to initiate contact to see if there are any other grounds for intervention at an earlier stage.
JOURNALIST: Will you call in the ambassador?
JULIE BISHOP: The Egyptian Ambassador will be speaking to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade tomorrow, we will 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, he is in contact with the Egyptian authorities, and I wish him to continue in that role while we undertake an investigation as to what is possible in terms of an intervention at this stage, and I do point out that the Greste family are currently conferring with their legal team as to what advice they will be taking in relation to an appeal.
JOURNALIST: Minister, just to clarify, your preference is to seek ways to have the conviction overturned rather than to make a stand and to have Mr Greste pardoned?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, at this stage we're seeing what intervention is possible. I have had many conversations with Egyptian authorities over the last few months and I have been informed in the past that the whole legal process must run its course before the Egyptian President can consider a pardon.
We want to initiate contact at this stage to see if an intervention at an earlier point in the legal proceedings is possible. I expect that there will be considerable international commentary on this matter. I expect that the Egyptian Government will come under a great deal of pressure from the international community. I want to see if there is a possibility for us to initiate a contact with the President to see if there can be an earlier intervention.
JOURNALIST: And how would you characterise your level of confidence about that having effect, especially taking into account the higher level of engagement you've had so far about this?
JULIE BISHOP: Most of our engagement has been with the interim Egyptian Government since last December. My contacts have been with the former Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Fahmy. The new Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukri was only appointed last week. My first contact with him was over the weekend. We had what I thought was a very constructive conversation and so I intend to follow that conversation up with another call as soon as possible.
JOURNALIST: Was the PM surprised because he seemed quite optimistic after his discussion?
JULIE BISHOP: Michelle, we are all shocked about this verdict, and that includes the Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: Minister, earlier on you were making representations through the Saudi channel as well. Was that not successful and is that something you leave open to pursue this way again?
JULIE BISHOP: We have made representations through a number of governments who we believe have influence over Egypt or are closer to Egypt than the Australian Government, and that has been not only in the Middle East but more broadly. And I know that representations have been made by Secretaries of State, Foreign Ministers and other high-level representatives from other countries to the highest levels within the interim Egyptian Government, and so we have been pressing the Egyptian Government over the Greste case for months now, including the Prime Minister’s personal phone call to the interim President and then his recent phone call to new President El-Sisi, and so we will continue to do that.
You will be aware that a number of foreign diplomats and government officials and Secretaries of State have confirmed publicly that they have made representations on behalf of Mr Greste and 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, other governments in the region whom we still believe have influence.
JOURNALIST: Is that concerning within itself that all these representations have been made and still we have a seven year sentence?
JULIE BISHOP: The Egyptian Government's response to date has been that it is an independent judicial process and we must respect the independent judicial process. Now, in the case of Australia, we say, yes, we do respect the independence of the judiciary, however, we are shocked by this verdict.
We are deeply disappointed that a court could come to this decision and quite frankly we simply do not understand how a court could have come to this decision based on the evidence of which we were aware. The representatives of the Australian Government in Cairo have attended the court hearings. We have had debriefings after every hearing. There have been, including today, 13 hearings. We have been in constant contact with Peter Greste and his lawyers and his family, and we simply cannot understand how a court could come to this conclusion.
JOURNALIST: Minister, some of the supporters of Peter Greste and his colleagues have expressed frustration through this whole period. They said they didn't think the Australian Government was doing enough soon enough and publicly enough. What do you say to those people? Do you think you accepted the independence of the Egyptian judiciary, and the arguments coming from Egypt too readily, should it have been done sooner and would it have made any difference do you think?
JULIE BISHOP: I query what else we should have done - personal phone calls between the Prime Minister of Australia and the President of Egypt are not common occurrences in relation to a single court case. I have had four conversations, one-on-one, personal conversations with the relevant Egyptian foreign minister, the former and now the current. I have spoken personally to the Deputy Foreign Minister. Our Attorney-General has contacted the Minister for Justice in Egypt in the previous government. We have made contact with the Ambassador. Our ambassador in Cairo Dr Ralph King has been constantly in touch with the Special Prosecutor, with whatever level of government he has been able to make contact.
I have been in contact and had meetings, one-on-one meetings with a range of ministers in other governments and asking them to make representations on our behalf. I cannot think of anything more that we could have done. I'm bitterly disappointed with the outcome, but I cannot think of what more we could have done, given that we have made constant representations at the highest level within the Egyptian Government.
JOURNALIST: What does the Government now recommend for other Australian journal, journalists looking to work in Egypt. Would you recommend that they put their plans on hold or how do you...
JULIE BISHOP: Well, I would certainly recommend that they seek advice on the current situation in Egypt. Now remember that this all arose at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was in fact the government, and that Peter Greste was there to report on the activities of what was then a legitimate party.
It has since been declared a terrorist organisation in Egypt, and so the scenario has changed dramatically, so I would urge any journalist seeking to head to Egypt to take some advice on the current situation in Egypt and of course the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would be only too happy to provide that.
JOURNALIST: From your initial contact with the new administration in Egypt, how confident are you of their commitment to democracy and free speech?
JULIE BISHOP: I can only go on the messaging that the new Egyptian Government has been giving to the world, that they are transitioning to democracy, and we support that. They want an independent judiciary and we would support that.
Of course we have an independent judiciary and an independent legal process in Australia and we hold our system up as a beacon of democracy in the world but we are shocked by this decision in this case, knowing the evidence that was presented before the court.
I understand that the Grestes are looking at the prospects of an appeal and they will be taking advice from their legal team. What the Australian Government can do is explore options for an intervention by the Egyptian Government.
JOURNALIST: Given all that's happened though, would you be optimistic or pessimistic that representation would have any effect?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, Michelle, all I can do is continue to make contact with the Egyptian Government at the highest level that we are able, and that is Presidential and Foreign Minister level. It is a new government. We have made contact with the new government virtually as soon as they were sworn in to their new appointments, their new positions and we will continue to do so.
JOURNALIST: The US Secretary of State is in Egypt at the moment. Are you seeking to have him make representations? Is that possible, is that useful?
JULIE BISHOP: The US has been a very good friend to Australia for some months in relation to this matter.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Peter Greste's parents since this decision, what can you tell us about their frame of mind? How are they holding up?
JULIE BISHOP: They are devastated, as you 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 and that was the hope that they had held.
I have informed them of what the Australian Government proposes to do and they indicated that they supported the course of action that we are adopting, that they have supported our continuation of contact with the new Egyptian Government, and they hope that that will resolve the situation, but they are also mindful of the fact that there is a long appeal process ahead of them. Now, we don't know how long an appeal process will take. That's a matter for the legal team to advise, but it's fair to say that they are absolutely devastated by the verdict.
JOURNALIST: Peter Greste appears to be caught up in a conflict between Egypt and Qatar over a number of issues. Does that complicate things or make it easy?
JULIE BISHOP: This is a very complicated case, it is a very complex situation, and it's very difficult for us 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 in Egypt, and so my fear is that Peter Greste was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And we are doing what we can to have this Australian journalist brought home as soon as possible, but of course we are shocked, utterly shocked by this verdict.
JOURNALIST: That was my question as well, but I will ask a different one instead. What does this say about the progress in Egypt since the Arab Spring? Are they essentially back to where they were in 2010 now?
JULIE BISHOP: We respect the fact that there has been an election in Egypt. We respect 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 or more that we support the interim government's efforts to take that road back to democracy. But to be a democracy, you must also respect international norms, and respect freedoms, and this verdict is hardly sending a message to the international community that Egypt is fulfilling that transition to democracy.
But we are prepared to work closely with the Egyptian Government to see if an intervention is possible so that we can get Peter Greste home as soon as we are able. Thank you.
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