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Aussies share horrors of being unjustly detained

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Aussies share horrors of being unjustly detained

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Bogus charges from a paranoid regime. The sudden loss of freedom, the fear of an extended prison sentence, and the overriding concern that nobody in the outside world really cares.

Pretty much everything the detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is experiencing and feeling right now, these four Australians know all too well.

Their stories differ – Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was imprisoned in Iran for 804 days; economist Professor Sean Turnell was detained in Myanmar for 650; reporter Peter Greste was held for 13 months in Egypt; and fellow journalist Cheng Lei spent more than three years in jail in China.

But all four know the horror of being unjustly detained for lengthy periods, and recall the anxiety that diplomatic negotiations may not be enough to secure their release.

As Mr Gershkovich notches up one full year since he was detained on espionage charges in Moscow – accusations fiercely denied by his lawyers, family and employer – these four Australians are reaching out to the 32-year-old reporter with heartfelt messages of hope, and good advice for surviving the dark days.

They join a growing chorus raising awareness about Mr Gershkovich’s plight and the issue of press freedom.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and a host of sports stars and leading journalists have so far responded to News Corp Australia’s Dear Evan campaign with words of encouragement.

“I don’t need to tell you that wrongful imprisonment is a marathon of endurance, albeit one in which a seemingly elusive finish line is always in sight,” wrote Dr Moore-Gilbert.

“As you approach that bitter anniversary, one whole year of unjust detention, please know that you are not alone, nor are you forgotten. Even on the other side of the world, in places as remote and obscure as southeastern Australia, we are mobilising for you.

“We care about you. This terrible ordeal will come to an end, and I suspect, sooner than we might anticipate.”

Professor Sean Turnell’s words were just as powerful. He exhorted Mr Gershkovich to remember his job as a journalist was “noble and good”.

“Free speech matters. It really matters. It’s the one thing that will prevent our world falling into the abyss I think,” he wrote.

He also passed on some tips about how he survived his time in prison.

“When I didn’t have any books I played memory games,” he said.

“I’d pick a topic, and try to remember all I could about it, assemble it in some sort of order, and carry in my head a narrative. I tried to remember every US President in history – in chronological order, and everything I could think of about them. I’d repeat the exercise day after day.”

Mr Greste shared that a moment of clarity helped him understand his prison experience.

“I recall how I sometimes spun out in a spiral of anger, bitterness, despair, frustration and loneliness,” he wrote.

“It took a long while for me to realise that regardless of the state of the walls and bars that confined us, those emotions – despair, anger, frustration, loneliness, bitterness – did not reside in the concrete or steel. They were merely mute elements pressed into service by people who didn’t care a jot about us. Rather, those emotions lived in my own head. And the thing that kept me down was not the cell that stopped us from doing our work or the a***holes who had locked us up for political expedience. It was the prison I had built in my mind. It had no external reality.”

The realisation was “liberating,” Mr Greste said, and while it didn’t mean his negative emotions vanished, it meant “I could also see them for what they were”.

“Rather than get sucked into that mind soup, I could let them go and start each day afresh,” he said.

Along with other Australians who have been unjustly jailed overseas, Dr Moore-Gilbert, Prof Turnell and Sky News journalist Cheng Lei have formed the Australian Wrongful and Arbitrary Detention Alliance, a group that will advocate for people in these situations. Ms Cheng’s partner Nick Coyle co-founded the group.

“We want more people to know, to care, to help,” Ms Cheng said.

“We will tell the world that taking someone hostage to extract political leverage is not acceptable.”

Readers can add their own voice of support for Mr Gershkovich by writing a letter via this masthead’s website, which will be sent to him at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

In her letter, Ms Cheng told Mr Gershkovich that after his release, he would see life “in brilliant colour”.

“You will meet people who have also suffered and made meaning out of it,” she wrote.

“You will have more pathos and clarity. You will give back to the world that fought for your freedom. You will heal.”

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