British journalist in Egyptian custody for 54 days for covering clashes near Interior Ministry
Quoted from British journalist Alisdare Hickson
On 5th of February 2012 I was arrested just off Mohamed Mahmoud street in central Cairo where I had been taking photographs of the protests and riots.
The day of my arrest was scary but similar to other days when I had photographed riot situations but the gas being used seemed particularly toxic. The previous day I had seen many people vomiting and one man shaking in uncontrollable convlusions. So the morning of the fifth the protesters were understandably nervous. One insisted it was not safe and that I should leave. I wish I had taken his advice.
Every now and again the armoured vans, with police shooting from the roofs and sirens wailing, rushed forwards down the street and the protesters scattered. At one such moment around midday I photographed them as they fled past me before I belatedly turned and ran with the last of them into a side street that led towards Falaky Square.
However as the gas clouds filled the air it became difficult to see and I followed several others into a narrow alley way which unfortunately turned out to be a dead end. Only minutes later several policemen armed with long black sticks entered and when they found us hiding in a stairwell adjacent a basement door they ordered us out. Then I heard one policeman shout ”Agnaby” (foreigner).
I was led away and some moments later one of the policemen shouted “Yahoody” (Jewish) and despite my quickly shouting “No English” I found myself being dragged along the ground as I was beaten twice on the top of my head and once on my forehead and had everything including my two cameras, passport and wallet ripped from my hand and pockets. I was then taken to the Ministry of Interior building a few hundred metres away where I was interviewed by several seemingly senior officers, some of whom were in military uniform.
Frontline fighters near Interior Ministry headquarters, on the same day Alisdare got arrested
There was a glass of water on a table but when I asked if I could have a drink I was told “only after you have answered all our questions.” One uniformed officer added “Don’t worry. You will soon tell us everything.” However about an hour later they relented, gave me a drink and asked a medic to treat my head injuries. I was then told I was being charged with “stone throwing” – a completely false accusation.
I later learned that 73 Egyptians and one 50 year old Korean woman were also arrested and charged with the same or similar acts of public violence that day. All or almost all were released without charge within the next eight weeks and I was one of the very last to win my freedom. I met the Korean woman several times in police vans. She was a small woman and obviously depressed about her situation but incredibly generous always offering her cigarettes and food to fellow prisoners. She said she ran a bed and breakfast back in Korea and insisted she had never thrown a stone. Not that I needed much convincing of her innocence.
On the first night after my arrest I was transferred to a basement cell below Abdeen Police Station which I shared with 30 other prisoners. There were just three small heavily barred windows high up on wall letting in a tiny amount of light from the street above. There were no beds and barely enough space on the floor to sleep and I would wake up every half hour as someone stepped on my legs in an attempt to reach the toilet/washroom. This was a tiny space cordened off by a dirty sheet with a single toilet and a broken tap with water continually cascading down the wall.
Many of the prisoners there were heavily addicted to drugs of which there was plenty. I suspected that some police officers either turned a blind eye to the supplies reaching them from outside or possibly one of more were taking commission. Either that or they were incompetent. I saw one officer take money from a visitor bringing food which seemed strange but I have no evidence that this was a bribe and there were a few officers who seemed decent types in the station whom I hope would not have allowed such drug usage to thrive if they had known about it.
This trade in drugs created a hierarchy of prisoners, with one prisoner regarded as the “kebeer” (big man) and he helped by several assistants. One day I was approached by one of these assistants and given a falafel sandwich. I passed it to an old man next to me explaining that I wasn’t hungry and that the old man needed it more than me. He insisted however but I likewise insisted that I wasn’t hungry – at which he patted me on the neck.
I didn’t realise anything had happened until a few seconds later a man sitting next to me told me that I was bleeding. It was only a small cut and the man returned later to apologise but it was a clear warning to obey the rules.
At the first court hearing my lawyer as in several subsequent hearings was given less than a minute to put his case before the magistrate waved his hand dismissively and declared that I would be given another 15 days detention.
Afterwards I was put into a police van assigned to take 25 children aged 13 to 17 to a prison and then to take me back to Abdeen. As soon as the van had entered Tora Maaskar prison where the children were to be kept it stopped and the guards disembarked and relaxed by the roadside. Inside the van however with the air no longer rushing through the small meshed windows the temperature quickly climbed and the children began to beg for water.
Despite their handcuffs they struggled to try to take their sweaters and jackets off as far as they could. Then a guard looked through the meshed window next to the door and saw the situation. He entered with other guards and they beat the children for undressing and for continuing to request water despite orders to be silent.
Soon afterwards one boy became crazy with fear. He wouldn’t stop shouting for water but luckily the guards ignored him. Perhaps about an hour and a half later – I’m not sure as I had no watch – one boy collapsed and was dragged out by his feet by the guards and the van door bolted again. It wasn’t until some more time had passed that the guards finally relented and brought water.
The van then proceeded further into the prison complex and when it stopped I was briefly disembarked with the children. A man wearing the tattered remnants of a prison uniform and who had been clearly beaten on every part of his body was brought forward and handcuffed to me. As soon as the cuffs were locked he started to beg the officer
“Please don’t beat me. Please don’t beat me.” (I have an understanding of Egyptian Arabic after several years of living there.)
The officer patted him gently on the back and reassured him – “You are just going to be transferred in the van – there’s nothing to worry about.”
Once back inside the van one of the guards asked the man to lift his shirt and I glanced discreetly sideways and could see all the many bruises and cuts that lined every few inches of his body. The guard asked “Why don’t you complain about this ?” but the man replied that he couldn’t.
Every now and again he started trembling. Later he went down with me to the crowded cell below Abdeen Police station and every time someone approached him or made a quick movement he would tremble almost uncontrollably. It was a pitiful sight.
Fortunately a few days later I was transferred from Abdeen to a relatively comfortable prison in the southern suburbs of Cairo – part of the infamous Tora complex which may soon house President Mubarak and his sons but also houses many prisoners of all types – including members of Sixth April Youth (a famous protest movement), former Government ministers as well as street crimminals accused of everything from drugs trafficing to murder.
I was housed at Tora Mazraa, which I was told was five-star by Egyptian prison standards and I had the good fortune to be located in one of the cells on the “first class” top (second) floor. On my level the cells housed about 70 inmates each whereas downstairs they were of similar size but housed over 100 each. The cell had narrow concrete beds on which we could place blankets brought in by prison relatives and there was a small cell kitchen and several reasonably clean toilets. Also, unlike the police cell where the prisoners had to depend entirely on donations of food by relatives, the prison provided some basic foods. Meat once a week. Chicken once a week. A box of cheese several days a week. Bread every day. Beans on most days. Lettuce once or twice a week and even one orange for every prisoner a week.
However there were also negative points. Although it was a remand prison, many inmates had been there for years under investigation – several in my cell for more than five. Under the constitution they should only be there up to a maximum of 24 months before sentence must be passed but due to emergency law the courts could impose indefinite delays. Prisoners often returned from court to tell us they’d been given yet another six month delay.
Also almost none of the prisoners were allowed any exercise. There was a basket ball court in the yard outside but I was told no one had been allowed to use it for over a year. One day however a rumour spread that a human rights organization would visit the next Saturday and one of my friends noticing I was looking very depressed pressured me into putting my name on the list. I was a bit reluctant as I’m absolutely useless at any type of football. However I needn’t have worried as when the day came, the cell door remained closed. There was no human rights group to visit and no basketball or football.
However due to pressure from Western Embassies a few of us, myself, a German man, an Austrian man, an American and another British man were allowed out three or four times a week for an hour or so to walk along the narrow walkway that ran between the cells on the first floor. I always tried to walk 40 lengths of the prison block which was a bit difficult as there was so much washing hanging over the walkway. The other prisoners were less fortunate unless they were working in the prison factory (some of them did this to earn enough to buy a few cigarettes) or had other prison jobs. Most of the prisoners never got out of the cell except for on Friday prayers and when they had to go to court.
The biggest fear we all had was the punishment cell reserved for those who were caught with money or mobile phones in their possession or whom for any other reason were thought deserving of punishment by the prison authorities. Fortunately I never saw any of the punishment cells. I was told they were located near the prison factory and that any prisoner was only allowed to take his prison shirt and trousers and no other possessions. He had to sleep in a small space on the floor sharing it with several other sometimes violent crimminals with almost no food and due to the lack of any blanket would really feel the cold at night as it was still winter.
I saw one man go down. He had been a real extravert – always smiling despite the depressing circumstances of our environment – but when he came back he had changed completely – he could barely look at you and his cheeks had sunk in while his body weight had obviously lost several kilos.
I was probably the luckiest of all the prisoners as my friends and family outside once aware of my situation worked very hard to organize my legal defence and keep me supplied with food. Luckily at the prison where family visits were allowed once a week and my brother-in-law kept me supplied with apples, organges, grapes, chicken, chocolate, milk, raisins, fresh vegetables, fresh cheese, packet soups, clothes, blankets, deoderants and even CK one perfume. To do this he had to stand in a queue for many hours every visiting day. He always looked a lot more tired than I did. Running from court to court, doing all the donkey work of evidence collecting and finding lawyers in between his trying to manage his business must have taken a heavy toll. How I will ever thank him I don’t know.
My tireless brother-in-law, my sister and a prominent human rights campaigner in London worked around the clock lobbying the British Embassy and FCO for me in London and towards the end of my time in prison the Embassy became much more supportive. However their initial help amounted to little more than one beef sandwhich, an ancient copy of the Daily Telegraph which was useful in covering the adjacent jail window at night, some leaflets with advice about taking up prison work ( hard labour) to pass the time which had all the inmates laughing and the routine passing on of messages and requests. However in my last two weeks there was a complete change and they really did try to use their influence with the Egyptian government and prison authorities on my behalf.
From early on my one great hope was that I would finally get out because of the weakness of the prosecution case against me. One police report said that the witness was by himself when he arrested me. Another said he arrested me with the help of other civilians whose names the police station had failed to record. One police report said the witness was standing next to me when I threw the stones. Another said he was twenty five metres away. In one report the witness said he took me directly to Abdeen Police Station. In another he said he took me to the Ministry of Interior.
In both reports he stated that I had an old head wound, while the hotel receptionist when interviewed by the prosecutor said I had no such wound when I left just two hours earlier. Finally the witness said he was in the area because he was “standing by his place of work – a building of the Ministry of Finance at the junction of Mansour and Mohamed Mahmoud streets” – presumably the tax office but this building had been badly burned two days earlier and so the reason for his being there is puzzling.
However each time I went to court the magistrate didn’t seem interested in even listening to what my lawyer had to say. However 47 days after my arrest I finally came face to face with a magistrate that seemed to read the report and listened to what was now a team of lawyers that my brother-in-law had employed. The magistrate shook his head in a puzzled way ”This police report is really strange”.
And he passed what for Egypt was an unusual judgement. Foreign prisoners told me it was virtually impossible for any of them to get bail because as one of them put it “the borders of the country are like Swiss cheese” – it’s too easy to escape. Yet despite this the magistrate granted bail for nothing. But I would need to go back to the prison for just two or three days while the paperwork was processed.
But then on the morning of day 49 came an unwelcome shock. The cell door opened and my name was called. “Gilsa” (court). How could this be ? I was sure there must be some mistake. Probably the guard didn’t understand. I was probably about to be released. “This is probably good news” I optimistically told a friend. However while I waited in the prison yard with about 40 other prisoners who were waiting for transportation to various courts – the bad news came. An officer told me that the Prosecutor had appealed the previous courts decision and that another more senior judge would make a new decision. Fortunately he was also sympathetic and renewed the decision to give me bail even though it was this time set at one thousand Egyptian pounds (About 170 dollars).
But even then the nightmare was not over – after routine processing at the Police Directorate and at the Prosecutor’s Office I was sent at night (day 51/52) to the State Security offices at the Ministry of Interior where I waited about 4 hours to no avail – no decision was taken on whether I might be released with or without a travel ban – and I was sent back to the police station cell where I managed to get about two hours sleep – and then back again to State Security the next day along with a Palestinian man. This time, bizarely given that this was State Security, the decision was issued in an unsealed brown envelope and the police officers agreed to show us the decision which in both our (unrelated) cases was “tarheel” – deportation. But for the meantime it was still yet again back to the police station cell awaiting the final day of bureaucratic processing.
It was a bad night in the cell. One of the inmates was a mentally handicapped man and some of the other prisoners became annoyed when he didn’t seem to understand what they asked him to do.
“Pick up that paper” one of the kebeer of the cell would shout and the man would just stare into space.
Several times he was beaten with a belt on the head and on his back and once he was lifted up by several prisoners so that his feet were in the air and the kebeer (head prisoner) beat them time and time again. The Palestinian man next to me loudly asked “why ?” I warned him quietly “Don’t. You’ll get both of us (I was his friend) into a difficult situation. We are both about to get released.” Then I pulled him away to the far side of the room. I’m afraid I was a coward in prison. I was ready to get out at almost any ethical cost.
The next day the Immigration Offices at Tahrir Square stamped my emergency passport (kindly supplied at the very last minute by the British Embassy) with the official reason for my deportation – overstaying my visa – somewhat odd in view of the fact that my most recent visa was less than 2 days old when I had been imprisoned. How had they expected me to renew it ? The real reason I’m sure was that they did not wish to see me win my case so by effectively banning me from attending my own trial they assured they could prevent any chance of justice being won.
So finally they sent me with two police officers to the airport where I was kept in a relatively comfortable detention centre which even had tables and chairs and a washroom – an amazing luxury. It was full mostly of Palestinians, one of whom while travelling from Jordan to Gaza had the temerity to assume that his three day transit visa allowed him to exit the airport and stay in Cairo.
I was kept here until about 30 minutes before my flight at which time I was taken to the gate or at least almost. Strangely they released me some 50 metres away – pointing out the gate number with the sure knowledge I expect that I was unlikely to try to escape back into Egypt. They weren’t wrong. I was possibly the happiest man on the plane.