September 30, 2013
10/01/world/middleeast/ westerners-smuggled-letters- offer-rare-glimpse-of- egyptian-prisons.html?smid=tw- share&pagewanted=all& pagewanted=print
CAIRO — The prisoners were stripped, beaten and had their heads shaved. They slept packed “like sardines” on concrete floors of overcrowded cells infested with cockroaches. One said that an open wound on his arm was left oozing, that a cellmate suffered a heart attack without getting medical attention, and that another prisoner was 11 years old.
Such stories are unexceptional for Egyptian prisoners awaiting trial. But these were told by North Americans: a doctor and filmmaker from Canada, Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, and a United States citizen, Mohamed Soltan, whose Egyptian father belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. They were among at least seven Westerners caught up in the continuing crackdown on the Brotherhood and other opponents of the recent military takeover.
Smuggled letters from the three released over the weekend offer a rare outsiders’ perspective on longstanding Egyptian prison conditions, which rights advocates said remain unchanged after the successive ousters of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and President Mohamed Morsi three months ago. But the missives also illustrate a new willingness to subject Westerners to the same treatment as Egyptians, rights advocates said, even as the military-backed government that ousted the elected Islamists seeks to convince the West that it will build a modern democracy.
“It does create sort of an embarrassment for the government, but so far at least this government seems less concerned about its image with the West than the previous ones under Morsi or even Mubarak,” said Karim Ennarah, a researcher on the criminal justice system at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “This is the normal Egyptian experience, but what is new is that foreigners used to seem to have some sort of protection from it.”
An Egyptian government spokesman disputed that, arguing that this summer was the first time that Western nationals had participated in illegal or violent street protests. “Under Mubarak there was no single case where foreigners participated in armed sit-ins or violent events,” said the spokesman, Badr Abdelatty. “It is an extraordinary, exceptional situation, so what do you expect?”
All three North American detainees will eventually have their day in court, he said, as will four Irish citizens of Egyptian descent detained around the same time. He said that none had been charged under Egypt’s so-called emergency law, which sidesteps trials. “It is a judicial, legal matter, and the judiciary should decide,” Mr. Abdelatty said.
But the detainees say that they did nothing wrong, and that their treatment defies any Western expectations of judicial due process: indefinite captivity under brutal conditions without any formal charges or any judicial hearing.
Mr. Soltan is a 25-year-old graduate of Ohio State University who moved to Egypt in February to work in the petroleum industry, said his sister, Hanaa Soltan, a clinical social worker in Washington, D.C.
Their father, Salah Soltan, a professor at Cairo University, is an outspoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood but hardly a die-hard. He made headlines this month when he publicly apologized for the Brotherhood’s mistakes, including failing to ally with liberal activists. Brotherhood officials dismissed the apology as Mr. Soltan’s personal views, and a few days later he, too, was arrested.
Ms. Soltan said her brother had been an opponent of the Brotherhood “and very vocal about it as well.”
But she said that after Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi responded to a wave of mass protests by ousting Mr. Morsi, her brother joined a Brotherhood-led sit-in at Rabaa Square here to defend what he considered the norms of American-style democracy. “He thought it did not matter how incompetent the elected leaders are,” she said. There is no hope of realizing the fruits of the revolution if you don’t respect democracy and you throw out the results of the ballots on the basis of displeasure at someone’s missteps.”
Mr. Soltan was shot in the arm on, when security forces broke up sit-ins at Rabaa and another square, killing nearly a thousand people. He was recovering from surgery to remove the bullet when the police raided his home and arrested him, he wrote in his letter, which he addressed to his mother.
Thrown into a group cell nicknamed The Fridge, “a room without seats, benches, windows and lights,” he recalled that one guard joked “that he could get me anything I wanted, drugs, alcohol, prostitutes. Just not due process.”
Mr. Soltan wrote that he was blindfolded and questioned the next morning and told he would be charged with six crimes, none of which, he said, had “any basis in reality,” including “membership in a terrorist organization; membership in an armed militia; disturbing the peace; falsifying and spreading rumors about the internal affairs of Egypt; and finally, the killing of protesters.” (Interior Ministry officials have sometimes argued, implausibly, that Brotherhood snipers fired at the Brotherhood’s supporters.)
Mr. Soltan expressed shock and surprise over a ritual that Egyptians consider standard for criminal suspects: the detainees ran between rows of security officers who struck them with rocks and sticks, known here sarcastically as the Tashreefa, or honoring ceremony.
“The officers stripped off our pants and shirts as they beat us with clubs,” he wrote. He was handcuffed to another prisoner, he said, forcing them to stay together even when using the toilet.
Neither of the two Canadians is an Islamist, either. Dr. Loubani, who is of Palestinian descent, was on his way to train medics in the Gaza Strip, and Mr. Greyson was planning to film his work there.
They were arrested together on two wrote in a letter provided to journalists, they heard a shout for a doctor. Dr. Loubani began treating wounded protesters and Mr. Greyson filmed the scene. “Between us, we saw over fifty Egyptians die,” they wrote, adding, “all unarmed.”in the vicinity of clashes between the police and Islamist protesters around a mosque in Ramses Square. Having “decided to check out the square,” the
When the fighting subsided, they “stopped for ice cream,” they wrote, and eventually stopped at a checkpoint to ask for help getting back to their hotel through police lines.
“That’s when we were: arrested, searched, caged, questioned, interrogated, videotaped with a ‘Syrian terrorist,’ slapped, beaten, ridiculed, hot-boxed, refused phone calls, stripped, shaved bald, accused of being foreign mercenaries,” they wrote, adding, “They screamed ‘Canadian’ as they kicked and hit us. John had a precisely etched boot-print bruise on his back for a week.”
They wrote that after six weeks in prison they shared a “3.5 meter x 5.5 meter” cell — about 11 feet by 18 feet — with six others, and that they were on the 12th day of a hunger strike to protest their treatment. “Now we get (almost) daily exercise and showers,” they wrote.
Mr. Abdelatty, the foreign ministry spokesman, saidthat prosecutors were preparing to charge the two with participating in an unlicensed demonstration and resisting security forces. He said that prosecutors reported finding photographs and video footage with the Canadians from inside the Ramses Square mosque, where security officials say gunmen fired down from the minarets.
In their letter, the two say their hotel room contained supplies for Gaza, including “two disassembled toy-size helicopters for testing the transportation of medical samples.”
Mr. Abdelatty said that in a search of their hotel room the police had found a small helicopter capable of transmitting aerial photographs — more grounds for suspicion, he said.
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.