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Thursday, 20 March 2014
Page: 1695

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Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (15:35): I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the response by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the resolution of the Senate of 13 February 2014 concerning Mr Peter» «Greste» .

Leave granted.

Senator MILNE: I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

«Peter» «Greste» , as we all know, is currently in jail in Egypt in quite appalling conditions. He has been wrongly detained. He is one of several journalists from the al-Jazeera network being detained in prison and suffering there. He is living in a dark, three-by-four-metre cell which he is sharing with other journalists. Until recently, they had been denied reading material. There are still not allowed to have pens and paper. They had a little sign, 'Freedom now', and that was taken away from them. They are under enormous pressure. We all saw the television coverage of the trial, where Mr «Greste» did not even have the services of an interpreter. He called out from behind the bars for the Prime Minister to speak out on his behalf. He said, 'From the White House, from the United Nations down, people have been speaking out.' John Kerry, the US Secretary of State has spoken out. The United Nations has been speaking out. It is time for our Prime Minister to speak out.

I acknowledge the work that has been done, particularly by the consular staff on the ground. I believe they are doing everything they possibly can to serve the best interests of «Peter» «Greste» and everything they can to argue for his release. But this is not about the consular staff; this is about where the politics takes it. That is why I am again calling on the Prime Minister to stand up and make a statement—not only for the release of «Peter» «Greste» but also for the principle of freedom of the press. This is incredibly important.

This is an important moment because the Egyptian President has taken quite an unusual step in writing to the parents of «Peter» «Greste» —Lois and Juris «Greste» . In that letter he said:

Notwithstanding the independence of the judiciary authority and foremost all the rights guaranteed by the law, I would like to assure you in my capacity as president of Egypt that I will spare no effort to work towards the speedy resolution of the case in a fashion consistent with the law and that guarantees the resumption of the family in the near future.

That is an unusual step and suggests to me that the international pressure currently being brought to bear on the Egyptian government from all around the world—as I said, from as high as the United Nations and John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, as well as from other governments in the region—is starting to have an impact in Egypt. The Egyptian government is being seen for what it is in detaining these journalists. It is being seen that this is all about covering up what is going on in Egypt and attacking freedom of speech. So I really think it is time the Prime Minister stood up on the world stage and said: 'We respect the freedom of the press. We think it is a critical part of civil rights and humanity. We also think that the arrest of «Peter» «Greste» and the other Al-Jazeera journalists on trumped-up charges is unacceptable and that they should be released.'

The Minister for Foreign Affairs received guarantees from her Egyptian counterparts that due process would be followed—but it was not followed. How can it be suggested that sending someone to court without allowing them to get their defence team together and without having interpreters on hand is anything but a sham trial? Here in Australia we need to understand that one of our citizens, a well-respected journalist, has been thrown in jail in Egypt on sham charges and is now going through a terrible time in an Egyptian prison—and that we are not, at the highest levels of our government, speaking out on the world stage for him.

I reiterate my thanks to the consular staff. I think they are doing a great job. I appreciate that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has met with her counterpart and is talking to others at her level around the world. My point, however, is that it is time for the Prime Minister to step up. He was prepared to personally intervene for two businesspeople held in the Middle East—and they had actually been convicted. He went there personally, intervened and had the charges overturned. He was prepared to do that for two businesspeople but, when it came to Colin Russell and the Arctic Sunrise, he said nothing for environmentalists who had been engaged in non-violent protest and who had been hijacked—their boat was taken while they were in international waters. The Prime Minister said nothing about that and now he is not saying anything about the principle of freedom of the press.

I am again today calling on the Prime Minister to stand up on the world stage and send a very strong message to the Egyptian government and other governments like it around the world. He needs to make it clear that this is a nation that appreciates freedom of the press and that this is a nation that will stand up for any of its citizens arrested on trumped-up charges and held in appalling conditions—no matter where in the world. He should call on the Egyptians to let «Peter» «Greste» come home. That is the key message that needs to go out. The Prime Minister needs to reassure «Peter» Greste's family that, at the highest levels of this government, as well as through the parliament, everybody stands behind «Peter» «Greste» and that we are all doing all we can to get «Peter» «Greste home as quickly as possible.