‘Appalled’ Abbott government will try to intervene for journalist Peter Greste

Australian journalist Peter Greste stands inside a court’s cage during a trial session in Egypt. EPA/Khaled Elfiqi

The Australian government will press the Egyptians “at the highest level” to try to free Australian journalist Peter Greste, sentenced to seven years jail after being convicted of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the government was “shocked” at the verdict and “appalled” at the sentence’s severity.

The court also found guilty two of Greste’s Al Jazeera English’s colleagues, with one receiving a ten-year sentence and the other seven years.

Bishop said: “Peter Greste is a well-respected Australian journalist. He was in Egypt to report on the political situation. He was not there to support the Muslim Brotherhood”.

In a tough message to the Egyptian government, she told a news conference: “We understand that Egypt has been through some very difficult times and there has been a great deal of turmoil … but this kind of verdict does nothing to support Egypt’s claim to be on a transition to democracy.

"The Australian government urges the new government of Egypt to reflect on what message is being sent to the world about the situation in Egypt.

"Freedom of the press is fundamental to a democracy and we are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world.”

Tony Abbott spoke to new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi about Greste at the weekend. “I assured him as a former journalist myself that Peter Greste would have been reporting the Muslim Brotherhood, not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, because that is what Australian journalists do,” the Prime Minister said, hours before the verdict. He thought Sisi understood that it would be a “PR coup for this new government if Peter Greste is not dealt with severely”.The Australian government has made representations over months on Greste’s behalf, as have other countries.

Bishop said Greste’s family was considering an appeal. She had previously been told the whole legal process must run its course before the President could consider a pardon. “I want to see if there is a possibility for us to initiate a contact with the President to see if there can be an earlier intervention.”

The Australian government was “prepared to work closely with the Egyptian government to see if an intervention is possible so we can get Peter Greste home as soon as we are able.”

The verdict was handed down amid chaotic scenes in the Egyptian court, where Greste and his colleagues were caged. They have been detained since December. Greste’s two brothers were present.

Prosecutors, who sought sentences of between 15 and 20 years, described the relationship between Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood as like an alliance with the devil.

Bishop said: “You will appreciate that Al Jazeera is not the favourite news channel in Egypt, and so my fear is that Peter Greste was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Since former president Mohamed Morsi was ousted last year, Egyptian authorities have been furious at the Qatari network’s coverage of treatment of his supporters. They accuse Doha of backing Morsi’s Brotherhood.

Bishop expected the Egyptian government would “come under a great deal of pressure from the international community”.

The Australian government simply did not understand “how a court could have come to this decision based on the evidence of which we were aware”.

Asked whether she was optimistic or pessimistic about the effect the government’s representations would have, she said: “All I can do is continue to make contract with the Egyptian government at the highest level that we are able and that is Presidential and Foreign Minister level.”

She said Greste’s parents – to whom she had spoken - were devastated.

Labor’s shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek said: “We remain ready to help the Abbott government do everything it can to assist in securing Peter’s release.”

The Greens leader Christine Milne declared that “all diplomatic options, including sanctions, should be on the table”.

Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said: “The authorities in Egypt need to take responsibility for their actions, and be held to account by the global community.”