Creating new perspectives since 2009

The systematic arrest of journalists in Egypt, and a trade treat for Canada

January 27, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Journalists take part in a protest outside the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo, Egypt [AFP/Getty]

On Sunday, the world learnt that the detention of Tarek Loubani and John Greyson had been extended by 45 days. The Canadian doctor and filmmaker have been held without charge since mid-August when they were arrested after filming and providing aid to the wounded during clashes between anti-coup protesters and the Egyptian security forces.

The two Canadians were on their way to Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza where Loubani teaches medicine and Greyson planned to make a documentary about his work. But as tension in Egypt between the Brotherhood and the security forces increased, travel to the Rafah border became difficult and they stayed overnight in Cairo.

August was a bloody month for Egypt and anti-coup protesters who were violently ‘cleared’ from squares where they were peacefully demonstrating against the military coup, demanding the return of their first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi. Thousands were killed and injured.

Whilst in Egypt, Loubani and Greyson decided to investigate Ramses Square, where more protests had started. But the demonstration turned bloody and whilst Tarek attempted to help Egyptians badly wounded, John filmed.

They then asked for directions back to their hotel when were arrested. They were searched, beaten, and then taken to Tora prison where members of the Muslim Brotherhood are also being held, without charge. They were interrogated, beaten and shaved.

An excerpt from their official statement said this: “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. Was it our Canadian passports, or the footage of Tarek performing CPR, or our ice cream wrappers that set them off? They screamed ‘Canadian’ as they kicked and hit us. John had a precisely etched bootprint bruise on his back for a week.”

Authorities found two toy-sized helicopters in their hotel room, which Greyson and Loubani have said they were for testing the transportation of medical samples. But spokesman Badr Abdelatty told Reuters: “The Canadians were searched and arrested while they were out after the curfew.”

“In their hotel room, a search found a USB stick containing film of the burning Fatah mosque and of armed protesters, sophisticated communication equipment, and a small plane that can hold a camera that takes footage from the air.”

They were held for 45 days without charges, and then on September 29 their detention was extended again. Their lawyer, Marwa Farouk, said in a recent interview on Democracy Now that though she presented all the documents proving John and Tarek were in Egypt in transit and by coincidence because they were actually intending to go to Al Shifa hospital in Gaza, all of them had been rejected without any alternative offered.

On September 16 Loubani and Greyson begun a hunger strike in an attempt to turn the spotlight onto their arrest and demand an improvement to their conditions, for example, more time to exercise. They have described sleeping on a concrete floor with cockroaches in their prison cell and one tap with dirty Nile water, which they shared with over thirty other men. They are not allowed any phone calls.

After winning an improvement to their living conditions, on October 2 they ended their hunger strike. Their friend and colleague, Justin Podur told MEMO that they saw a doctor on Wednesday and they are “medically ok” but that “they are not allowed any direct communications.”

Critics of the Canadian government have said that at the highest levels there has not been enough pressure for their release; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not yet called his Egyptian counterpart personally to ask for their release.

Podur told MEMO that “they have made entreaties through Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which we appreciate, and made public statements, which we also appreciate,” but Podur also expressed his concern about the Canadian government encouraging “fanciful charges.”

“They have said that in the absence of charges, Tarek and John should be released. But given the lack of credibility of the Egyptian authorities on this, we do not want to invite them to bring fanciful charges. We want the Canadian government to remove the loophole represented by, “absent charges, they should be released,” and say simply that they should be released immediately and without conditions.”

And what can the Canadian authorities do further than appeal? “Beyond entreaties, Canada should start to put elements of the bilateral trade relationship on the table, for example funding through the Export Development Corporation.”

Author and activist Naomi Klein also told Democracy Now that there is a great deal of trade between Egypt and Canada, and there are a number of Canadian resource companies trying to establish themselves in Egypt, particularly for mineral extraction. The Harper government could pull their support for Egyptian investment, says Klein; the Egyptian economy is in a bad state now and if the people there saw that this was costing them, there would be more pressure from home.

Sadly, Loubani and Greyson’s story is nothing new in Egypt. The day they were arrested, 600 other Egyptians were also arrested. In fact, since Morsi was ousted, the Egyptian authorities have embarked on the systematic arrest of journalists and other high profile figures. At least 15,000 – mainly supporters of the deposed President – are currently incarcerated including prominent members of the leadership.

Al Jazeera reporters Abdullah al-Shami, Mohammed Badr are still detained, as is Ahmed Abu Deraa, a reporter for Al-Masry Al-Youm. Sky News cameraman Mick Dean was shot dead in August covering the protests. MEMO recently published a list of 59 University Professors who have been detained since the beginning of the coup; an alarming indication of what human rights has become in Egypt.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.