Latvia: Trying to free its Al Jazeera journo

Latvia has worked tirelessly to secure the freedom from Egypt of its unjustly imprisoned citizen, Peter Greste.

Greste and two other Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven and 10 years behind bars [Phil Moore]

Cairo, Egypt – It was an otherwise unremarkable day inside Tora Prison when the Australian journalist Peter Greste discovered he was a citizen of Latvia.

In his cell, he opened an out-of-date newspaper and flicked through it for news of his case. He found an article and began to read. It was then that he saw the word “Latvian” for the first time in conjunction with his name.

The newspaper article referred to Greste as a dual Latvian and Australian national – a fact he himself had not known.

“Yes!” he recalls saying aloud.

It made him a citizen of the European Union, which would surely help his case. What he did not realise was that the “diddy” country, by his own concession, would turn out to be the mouse that roared.

Greste is a 49-year-old correspondent for Al Jazeera English who has been based in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, since 2009 and usually works in East Africa.

 Media crackdown in Egypt

On December 29, 2013, he was arrested in Cairo while filling in for a three-week vacancy on the unpopular Christmas shift. He has since been held behind the imposing walls of the heavily guarded Tora Prison complex with two other Al Jazeera staff members – Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy, and Producer Baher Mohamed.

The trio was sentenced in June to between seven and 10 years behind bars.

Undiscovered roots

Juris Greste, Peter’s father, was born in Latvia but fled the country as an eight-year old boy in 1944 with his mother and two siblings. The family knew they were targets of the communist regime sweeping westwards towards their German-occupied Baltic-coast town. Peter’s grandfather, an industrial chemist, had been conscripted into the flailing German army and was unable to join his family.

“Anyone who wasn’t regarded as absolutely working class was either down for extermination or deportation to one of the infamous Gulag labour camps,” Juris recalls.

His father was captured by the British and died before the end of the war from pneumonia while in prison in Belgium. After the war, Juris sought refuge with his mother and siblings in Australia.

In late 1991, Latvia regained independence from the USSR, and the new government sought to restore the citizenship of those who had fled. Juris accepted Latvian citizenship, and encouraged his three sons to do the same.

Peter duly sent in his form, but forgot to follow up on it. Unbeknownst to him, a citizenship number was issued.

Peter Greste with his mom and dad in Latvia in December 2012 [Aigars Otanke/Al Jazeera]

His Latvian origins had “somehow a mythical quality” for Peter, Juris says, until Christmas 2012, when together with his family, Peter visited Latvia for the first time.

“Standing in front of the house where I lived before I fled my country – it still had its original paintwork – all of a sudden the past had a different kind of presence for him,” Juris says.

Peter could not have known that just two years later, his father’s birthplace would play a critical role in trying to secure his freedom.

Immediately after the Al Jazeera trio’s arrest in Cairo’s Marriott Hotel, the Egyptian media dubbed them a “terror cell” and international news picked up the story. When Iveta Šulca, the Latvian ambassador to Egypt, heard of the arrest, her interest piqued.

“Among the names of journalists one seemed to me very Latvian,” she recalls.

Latvia takes action

“All of a sudden Latvia claimed a piece of him,” says a delighted Juris, speaking in his Cairo hotel room where he and his wife Lois are staying to visit Peter over Christmas.

Latvia wasted no time.

They appointed an Egyptian lawyer to work on Peter’s case and help the family through the process. The ambassador herself turned up for every court session.

After Peter was sentenced in June, the Latvian consulate brought sophisticated imaging equipment into the prison to collect biometric data for his new passport. Peter now wears a small metal pin on his regulation-blue shirt in the colour of the Latvian flag, given to him by the ambassador.

Latvia and Australia are working hand-in-hand to secure Peter’s release and ensure his consular rights.

Peter’s brothers, Andrew and Mike, have been so impressed with Latvia’s efforts that they have since become dual-nationals themselves.

It is hard to tell what is working but “overall, it is a significant and strong signal to Egypt that two countries speak in one voice regarding the release of their citizen”, says Šulca.

Thanks to consular efforts, Peter now has a stack of photocopied reading material for his master’s degree in international relations.

Grim time for journalists

In November, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a presidential decree granting him the powers to deport foreign prisoners. While this offers hope for Peter, it remains unclear whether the decree relates to their case. It has also prompted concerns for Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, and Baher Mohamed, who is Egyptian. 

It has been grim for journalists in Egypt. “Rarely have so many of us been imprisoned, beaten up, intimidated or murdered in the course of our duties,” Greste wrote in his keynote speech to London’s Frontline Club Awards, delivered by proxy in October.

“At a personal level, our incarceration in Egypt – myself and my two Al Jazeera colleagues Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – and more crucially the Foley and Sotloff murders have dramatically reminded people why a free and untrammelled press is so important.”

Rarely have so many of us been imprisoned, beaten up, intimidated or murdered in the course of our duties.

by - Peter Greste, Al Jazeera journalist

James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both respected journalists and victims of ISIL’s debased beheading campaign, won the Frontline Club’s 2014 Tribute Award.

The murder of British and US captives by ISIL has brought the disparity of foreign policies when it comes to negotiating ransom demands, and the significance of nationality, into sharp focus.

According to a New York Times investigation, the fates of British and US citizens were sealed by their nationality: neither government pays ransom. Of 23 foreigners held by ISIL this year, the majority walked free after their governments paid up. 

Human rights on the decline

Egypt is showing an unprecedented disregard for human rights and democracy, rights groups say.

The Carter Centre, a US election monitor, pulled out of Cairo this year saying the “political space has narrowed for Egyptian political parties, civil society, and the media”.

Egyptian authorities estimate they have imprisoned more than 22,000 people since the July 2013 coup that brought Sisi to power. The Egptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, which has also documented arrests, put the number at 41,000.

During two trials in March and April this year, one judge issued 1,212 death sentences for attacks on police stations, 220 of which were approved. A further 188 defendants were given provisional death sentences this month for attacking another police station.

Human Rights Watch is calling this “the most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history”. 

The next milestone for Greste and his colleagues is January 1, when they will appear before a court to learn of the outcome of their appeal.

In a twist of fate, on the same day 3,000km away in Brussels, Latvia will take over the rotating presidency of the EU, putting the country in a strong position to advocate for Greste’s release.

“The European Union is the biggest trading partner and investor in Egypt,” Ambassador Šulca says.

The detention of the journalists is already on the agenda. Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics has discussed Greste’s case with former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her successor Federica Mogherini.

Bilateral dialogue will continue to engage Egypt on the case, officials say. 

“It’s like reading the tea leaves. they’re making promising patterns,” says Greste’s mother Lois. But she has learned to be cautious about her son’s release. “Until it happens, we won’t really believe it.”

Source: Al Jazeera