Having spent three years living and working as a journalist in the Middle East, I’ve witnessed countless horrible moments in people’s lives.
However, filming last night in a suburban Brisbane lounge room was one of the saddest experiences I’ve ever had as a reporter.
Australian journalist Peter Greste and his two Egyptian colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested in Cairo in December 2013 and accused of spreading false news and supporting the now banned Islamist group the Muslim brotherhood.
The three employees of Al Jazeera English have spent the last six months in prison, sharing a jailed a 4m cell that is locked down for 23 hours a day, with only a small window for light.
Every few weeks they have been trotted out to appear at a trial widely condemned as farcical and absurd. ‘Evidence’ included personal photographs, Greste’s reports from other networks and countries, and even a music clip from Australian band Goyte. To put it simply – it would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.
Peter’s younger brothers Andrew and Mike have taken turns living out of a suitcase in Cairo, visiting their brother in prison and providing what support they can.
Their parents, Lois and Juris have had to suddenly turn into global PR merchants- holding countless press conferences, making hundreds of calls and sending thousands of emails campaigning for Peter’s release.
Last week, a few days before a verdict in the case was due, Lois and Peter Greste invited me and Foreign Correspondent’s cameraman Dave Martin up to their family farm in the Lockyer Valley, just outside of Brisbane.
Surrounded by gumtrees and creeks, with no electricity and no phone reception – it was a place to escape as they anxiously counted down the hours until they learnt of their son’s fate.
“This is the house we built when the boys were 10, 13 and 16,” recalled Lois fondly. “It was good times,” laughed Juris. “Working our guts out in the height of summer and then going skinny dipping in the creek!”
They were in high spirits. The release a few days earlier of Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdullah Al Shamy gave them real hope that Peter would be next. Plans to go to Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, were discussed – ‘I don’t want to hug him in front of lots of TV cameras,” mused Lois. Whilst Juris confided that they had gone shopping for champagne the day before, “The first thing Peter will want to do is go Kite-surfing,” he told me grinning.
A few nights later I was back with the Greste’s at their Brisbane home. The passports were on the bench, the champagne cold in the fridge. Prime Minister Abbott’s news that morning that he had spoken with the new Egyptian President Sisi to lobby for Peter’s release added to their hopes.