Locked Up Abroad

Meet the two innocent Canadians beaten up and left to rot for months in Cairo's most notorious prison.

Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — One August morning, three police trucks pulled up to Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison. The trucks — packed full of people — were left to cook in the searing August heat. Some prisoners defecated and urinated on themselves; one young man became delirious. After four hours, the doors were opened, and Tora’s infamous "Welcome Party" began.

Inside one of the trucks were two Canadian citizens, filmmaker John Greyson and emergency doctor Tarek Loubani. The two men were detained for 50 days without charge after being arrested, along with roughly 600 other people, during an Aug. 16 protest against the current military-backed government. They were finally allowed to leave Egypt last week — but before they left, they spoke exclusively to Foreign Policy about their experience within Tora Prison. Their story paints a grim picture of Egypt’s Kafka-esque judicial system and the brutal tactics employed by the security forces to silence critics and foreign observers.

The Tora "Welcome Party" is a hazing ritual designed to break the will of new inmates. The Canadians were chased out of their van toward two lines of police officers, who were armed with electric prods and batons.

"We were made to run the gantlet," Greyson said. It was a systematic and well-rehearsed assault: "They kick you in the kidneys so it’s effective but doesn’t break ribs; they hit you in the face without leaving cuts or bruises."

The prisoners were then forced to crouch — bent double in a stress position — and made to watch as another truckload of inmates was brutalized. They were then turned around so they could only hear the prisoners’ screams as officers edged toward them, weapons raised.

Loubani said the two were singled out for a special beating. "It shocked the others," he said. "John is a respectable-looking man in his 50s; he is Canadian — but they just went for him."

The ordeal left a neat boot print in the center of Greyson’s back for a week.

It could have been even worse for the two foreigners. Some 36 prisoners in another police truck heading to Abu Zaabal Prison, outside Cairo, rioted against the unbearable heat in the vehicle and ended up killing a guard. The prison officers took their revenge by burning them alive in their van, or so the guards later boasted to the Canadians. At the time of the incident, security officials said the prisoners died of asphyxiation after tear gas was fired into the crowded police truck. Two Western prisoners have also died in Egyptian prisons in the last month: A French citizen was reportedly beaten to death by his fellow inmates, while an American was found dead on Oct. 13 in an apparent suicide.

Greyson and Loubani had been caught up in the security crackdown that followed the violent dispersal of two Cairo-based sit-ins in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, which resulted in the deaths of at least 600 people. Just the day before, on Aug. 15, the two Canadians’ plan had been to travel to Gaza, where Loubani was due to teach basic first-aid and Greyson was set to film him. But Egypt had shut its borders with the Palestinian territory in the unrest following Morsy’s ouster: With no way to enter, the men decided to observe a pro-Morsy protest in downtown Cairo’s Ramses Square.

The rally started peacefully enough. But when the pair heard the first crack of gunfire and protesters brought the first bloodied body back from the front lines, Loubani, an experienced conflict physician, "snapped into doctor’s mode," Greyson said. Loubani started to treat the injured on the floor of nearby al-Fateh Mosque, while Greyson filmed.

It is unclear who started the fight that day. The authorities claim protesters opened fire on a nearby police station, while Morsy supporters say they were gunned down as they peacefully demonstrated. Loubani and Greyson’s only concern, however, was the stream of critically injured people.

Once the clashes died down, the Canadians, their trousers soaked with blood, made their way back to their hotel through the warren of barriers and blockades. At the last checkpoint, in view of their hotel, they asked for assistance from a group of men in civilian dress. This proved to be a terrible mistake.

The men were plainclothes police officers. Spotting the camera and the stethoscope, they swiftly took Greyson and Loubani to the nearby Abdeen police station. The Canadians were paraded in front of a waiting Egyptian TV crew, along with a terrified Syrian-Egyptian schoolteacher, as evidence that foreign agents connected with Hamas were guiding the protests.

"They wanted to splash on Egyptian TV that they had caught Hamas agents," Greyson said. "Tarek had to show them how to get an audio level, as they didn’t know how to use their own equipment. They didn’t have a translator, so Tarek was handed the microphone. It was textbook Monty Python."

The subsequent interrogation by the police was just as bizarre: "They kept asking us what the ‘secret password’ was," Loubani added.

The pair was convinced that it was all just a horrible mistake and that they would be released in 24 hours. Instead, they were held for seven weeks. Canadian Embassy staff visited the two men shortly after their arrest, and the Canadian ambassador publicly called on the Egyptian government to explain why they were being detained.

The conditions within Tora Prison were deplorable. Greyson and Loubani were shaved bald, stripped, and thrown in a cockroach-infested 3-by-10-meter cell with 36 other prisoners, who slept on the bare concrete floor.

In one corner of the tiny cell was a squat toilet with a tap. "It became our kitchen, bathroom, and shower," said Greyson, who slept next to the rubbish pile. In the first month, they were allowed just six half-hour sessions out of their cell in the exercise yard.

A strong bond developed between the 38 incarcerated men, who entertained each other with nightly talks. "We had lectures on pasteurization, industrial agricultural, how to improve your CV.… I gave a talk on CPR," Loubani said.

The pair even performed a tragicomic sketch that reconstructed the circumstances of their arrest. Greyson, who doesn’t speak Arabic, gave English lessons and learned calligraphy.

Using only some basic tools and their ingenuity, the inmates tried to devise some creature comforts. One 18-year-old farmer made a basic heating device from nails, wire, and bottle tops, allowing him to brew tea for his cellmates every night. The Canadians also learned the Tora tradition of making glue from boiled macaroni fermented with sugar. "It was so strong you could hang off it," Greyson said.

This allowed them to fashion hanging baskets for their belongings from fabric cut with tuna-can lids and ropes made out of twisted pants. Anything they could not make, they would get through bribes. "The whole economy of the prison is in cigarettes; it’s all about Marlboro and Merits," Loubani said.

Visitors are not allowed until day 11, when vital food, toiletries, detergent, and changes of clothing are brought in by inmates’ families and shared among the group. Loubani and Greyson’s relatives, however, were still in Canada and unable to visit, so they were clothed by their fellow prisoners.

Despite never formally being charged, Greyson and Loubani’s detention was repeatedly extended. In desperation, they started a hunger strike, which they continued for over two weeks and only stopped after winning some concessions from their jailers. By the fifth week of their incarceration, they were moved to a smaller cell, but one with just eight people in it — mostly second-tier leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. "We were able to bribe the guard for an hour walk each day," Loubani said.

The pair smuggled out letters detailing their treatment that circulated among foreign media and fueled a campaign calling for their release, which secured over 150,000 signatures, including those from celebrities Charlize Theron and Alec Baldwin.

On Oct. 6 at 1:30 a.m., after exactly 50 days, 3 hours, and 35 minutes, Greyson and Loubani were freed. Fearful of being sent back inside Tora Prison, they spoke about their experience, but asked that the story be held until they were safely out of Egypt. The two men were briefly prevented from leaving the country, but arrived safely in Toronto on the evening of Oct. 11.

The imprisonment left a lasting impression on the Canadian activists — and a determination not to abandon their comrades who remain in jail. While the Egyptian government vows to continue its "war on terror," Loubani and Greyson say they will speak out about what is going on behind closed jail cell doors.

"We have this responsibility to talk," said Greyson, the night before he flew home. "But it’s going to be an uphill battle to get people to listen."

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