The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has reiterated its call for Egyptian authorities to release Australian journalist Peter Greste and his fellow Al Jazeera colleagues after letters he has written from his prison cell in Cairo have revealed the harsh conditions in which they are being held.
Greste and four other Al-Jazeera journalists, Cairo Bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who has dual Egyptian/Canadian nationality, and Egyptian journalists Baher Mohamed, Abdullah al-Shami and Mohammed Badr, are among 20 people who Egypt's chief prosecutor has today, Wednesday 29 January, referred to trial on charges of joining or assisting a terrorist group and spreading false news that endangers national security.
This is the first instance of terror-related charges against journalists and foreigners since the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in December. Al-Jazeera has denied the charges, demanding its reporters be freed.
During his time in Tora prison in Cairo, Greste, a Peabody-winning Australian journalist and former BBC correspondent, has written emotional letters to his family that have been smuggled from his cell.
In the letters, he said that he had his first walk in the "weak winter sunshine" after spending ten days being locked in his cell 24 hours a day when not being questioned, while he expressed his fear that writing the letters might result in his harsh treatment, saying: "I am nervous as I write this. I am in my cold prison cell after my first official exercise session - four glorious hours in the grass yard behind our block and I don't want that right to be snatched away."
Despite his fear, Greste said he had changed his mind about remaining silent about his detention, despite risking having his books and pen taken away from him, stating: "But after two weeks in prison it is now clear that this is a dangerous decision. It validates an attack not just on me and my two colleagues but on freedom of speech across Egypt. All of a sudden, my books seem rather petty."
Later in his letters, he added: "So, all we have is what we did - a routine body of reporting on the political drama unfolding around us, and what it might mean for Egypt. The fact that this has put us behind bars is especially alarming given the historical moment Egypt now finds itself in."
Writing about his colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who were detained alongside him on 29 December, Greste said they were being held in worse conditions that he was and have been accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. "Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul-destroying tedium," he said.
Greste has thanked the family and supporters of the journalists, stating that they are "moved and strengthened by the extraordinary support we have already had."
Christopher Warren, Federal Secretary of IFJ affiliate, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), has repeated the appeal for the Egyptian Government to immediately release Greste and his Al-Jazeera colleagues. The MEAA believe the journalists have been charged for simply carrying out their duties as professional journalists.
Backing the MEAA appeal, IFJ President Jim Boumelha has said Egypt's actions call into question the country's attitude towards basic human rights.
"By referring these journalists for trial the Egyptian government is undermining the right to press freedom and freedom of expression in the country and calling into question its attitude towards basic human rights," said IFJ President Jim Boumelha. "These are working journalists who have committed no crime and must be released with immediate effect."
For more information, please contact IFJ on + 32 2 235 22 17
The IFJ represents more than 600 000 journalists in 134 countries