Juris and Lois Greste have been able to visit their son, Australian journalist Peter Greste, in Tora Prison in Egypt for the first time since his sentencing. Photo: Ruth Pollard
Cairo: They have followed their son’s reporting in conflict zones around the world, watching as he moved from the BBC to al-Jazeera, from Afghanistan to the Balkans, Iraq to Somalia and Kenya.
But for Peter Greste’s parents, Lois and Juris, this week has been their toughest yet.
Capping off a harrowing six months in which Peter, an award-winning Australian journalist, was arrested on December 29 while working in Egypt, put on trial, convicted and jailed for seven years, this week his parents saw him for the first time in a prison in Cairo.
Peter Greste inside the defendant's cage at court during his trial. Photo: AFP
Wearing a blue uniform reserved for convicted inmates, a prisoner number written on his pants, they watched as their 49-year-old son walked towards them in the visitor’s compound.
All three of them burst into tears and they hugged Peter for the first time since they viewed with horror his 12 appearances made from the defendant’s cage in a dusty courtroom in Tora Prison.
“It is the first time we’ve seen him since this saga began and that is not easy,” says his mother Lois.
”It was a very emotional meeting of course – it was so fast and we had so many legal matters and other issues to talk about we ran out of time.
"Before we knew it 45 minutes was up.”
But while there were high emotions when they first saw Peter and when they had to say goodbye, Lois says the family got down to business for rest of the short meeting.
“We kept it together for his sake, as he did for us,” she says.
“It was only a bit over a week since the verdict and he is having to, like us, come to terms with it, and you cannot do that in a short space of time.”
Greste was sentenced to at least seven years in prison on June 23, as was his colleague, 40-year-old Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy.
Jazeera’s producer Baher Mohamed, 31, whose wife will soon give birth to their third child, received a 10-year sentence.
They were found guilty of conspiring with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood to produce “false news” that defamed Egypt.
All three deny the charges and their conviction has been condemned by governments around the world, including Australia, the US, Canada, the Netherlands and Britain.
Press freedom and human rights groups have criticised the trial as a witch-hunt designed to silence journalists in crisis-ridden Egypt.
The three are being held in the sprawling Tora Prison complex and have been moved to the wing known as The Farm, where many senior political figures associated with the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak are kept.
“Meeting up with us for the first time in a new place, clearly he would have been carrying inside a good deal of stress and anxiety,” his father Juris says of their visit.
“Peter is mentally strong and courageous but at the same time, in our infrequent telephone conversations we’ve had with him he has been very deliberate in keeping us buoyed up, knowing that it was hard for us at that distance.
“In a face-to-face engagement, we are all vulnerable. I think that he is keeping on top of his vulnerabilities but I realised that the load is heavy and it is not easy to cope with what he is going through.”
It takes, Juris notes, “a good deal of directed effort and energy on his part to maintain that kind of mental balance”.
In the downtime, the family is attempting to face the worst-case scenarios.
What if he serves the full seven years on what has been condemned as a politically-motivated, trumped up conviction?
“Where does that leave him in career terms, where does he go then?” Juris asks. “All of these scenarios have some very, very sombre sides.”
And while some of his prison conditions have slightly improved – he is now in a much bigger cell more like a dormitory with 10 other prisoners, some conditions continue to raise concerns.
“For example the day we went to visit he didn't have enough drinking water and the canteen had been closed for three days,” Lois says.
“Food and water are a basic human right. He has got enough to sustain him but living with just enough to sustain you is a real psychological ordeal.”
In the meantime, the family is working to enrol Peter in a university degree – already a significant challenge given Egypt’s prisons have no computers, but not out of the question.
“Peter is desperate for intellectual stimulation, and also to try to put his time to some productive end,” she says.
The family has just one visit per fortnight – boosted to two visits per fortnight during the holy fasting month of Ramadan – and much of their time is taken up assessing the prospects of an appeal.
Lois and Juris will say only this: “We are evaluating and assessing all options related to the appeal.”
Fairfax Media understands that within 30 days after the sentence, the judgement is supposed to be available to counsel – after that, there’s 30 days within which an appeal can be lodged.
In the meantime, the firstname.lastname@example.org email has received a flood of letters, Lois says, which are printed off and taken to the prison each week for Peter to read.
Along with the outpouring of public support, what has really lifted Peter’s spirits has been the utterly mundane – this week he had his first hot meal in six months now that he is in a cell with a microwave and a hotplate.
The cooking gene runs strongly in the Greste family and Peter is no exception – he uses some of his unspent creative energy as the self-appointed chef for his dormitory, working with the limited ingredients prison life serves up.
Recently, Lois says, he made a salad with oranges, fresh mint and cranberries his parents had sent him from home, dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and cumin powder.
“Apparently the whole wing loved it,” she says. “I thought to myself when he was describing that, ‘yum that sounds good’.”
It was, for the Grestes, just a fleeting moment of normalcy in an extraordinary journey to Egypt to free their son and clear his name.