After being held for 51 days without charge, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and Dr. Tarek Loubani were freed on October 6th from Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison.
Since returning to Canada last Friday, Greyson and Loubani have spoken with numerous media outlets about the horrific treatment they experienced at the prison, which has held many of Egypt’s most high-profile prisoners, including former President Hosni Mubarak.
Greyson and Loubani originally traveled to Egypt in August to work in Gaza, where Loubani trains emergency room doctors. Greyson was planning on filming Loubani’s work.
When the two arrived in Cairo, they found that they were unable to travel to Gaza because of the political upheaval taking place at the time. While the details are still murky, it appears Greyson and Loubani attended the Cairo-based sit-in at al-Fateh Mosque in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, which resulted in the deaths of 600 people.
When the peaceful rally turned violent, Loubani began giving medical attention to injured protesters, with Greyson acting as his de-facto nurse and also filming footage. After escaping the rally, the pair approached a group of plainclothes policemen for assistance and were swiftly arrested. They were later put on national television as evidence that Hamas was sparking the protests.
While Greyson and Loubani have maintained that they were only passing through Egypt to go to Gaza for humanitarian reasons, Egyptian authorities have questioned their motives.
“When they were arrested they were found with a memory stick with footage and pictures,” Badr Abdellatty, an Egyptian foreign ministry representative told The Daily Beast. “When police searched their hotel room they found equipment to do live broadcasts and a small drone helicopter with a camera on it.”
The pair were then brought to Tora Prison, where the treatment was brutal. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Greyson and Loubani said that upon arriving at the prison, they were forced to wait in packed trucks in the August heat for four hours. The conditions were so bad that prisoners in a similar truck, heading to Abu Zaabal Prison on the same day, rioted against the heat and killed a guard. Luckily, the pair were not in that truck; the officers burned the prisoners in the truck in retaliation.
Once Loubani, Greyson and the other prisoners were let out of the truck, they were chased towards police officers carrying electric prods and batons. The ritual known as the “Welcome Party” is designed to break the will of new prisoners.
“We were made to run the gantlet,” Greyson told Foreign Policy. “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 “Welcome Party” continued as the prisoners were forced to watch other trucks of inmates undergo the same ritual. Loubani and Greyson were then given a special beating by the officers.
“That’s when the guards started screaming ‘Canadies’ as they beat Tarek and me. I got a bruise in the shape of a detailed boot print etched in my back. I spent some time trying to imagine and draw it from descriptions by Tarek and [Canadian] embassy staff. I couldn’t see it because we didn’t have mirrors in jail,” Greyson told The Daily Beast.
Greyson and Loubani were first kept in a 3×10 meter cockroach-infested cell with 36 other inmates that afforded them a “small bath mat” worth of space on the concrete floor. The only private space was behind a makeshift curtain over a squatting toilet and a tap, which ended up serving as their kitchen, bathroom, and shower. In the first month, prisoners were allowed six half-hour sessions out of the cell in the exercise yard.
Greyson and Loubani formed friendships with the 36 other inmates, as they tried to keep each other entertained and their spirits up. Loubani frequently gave medical advice to the other prisoners and the inmates gave nightly lectures on various topics of which they were knowledgeable.
Greyson sketched portraits of 34 of the inmates, many as gifts for inmates who missed their weddings due to the detention. He also helped a handful of inmates improve their English, one of whom memorized Greyson’s entire family tree.
“Despite a lack of common language there was real support,” Greyson told CTV News.
Loubani and Greyson became well-schooled in the practice of prison ingenuity. The inmates created a heating device from nails, wire and bottle tops to make tea and they used boiled macaroni fermented with sugar to make glue. Using the glue and fabric from their clothes, the inmates made hanging baskets for their belongings.
After five weeks, the duo was moved to a smaller cell with only 8 people in it. Greyson told The Daily Beast that, upon moving, they saw an interrogation room with the door left open and two men being beated while third lay on the ground with an open wound on his head.
After a hunger strike, Greyson and Loubani were able to gain some concessions including daily exercise and showers.
It seemed that the pair were never going to leave Tora Prison, as Egyptian authorities refused to budge despite pressure from the Canadian government and public support.
When Loubani’s father arrived to visit the prison and plead his son’s case at the Ministry of the Interior, some progress was made. Mahmoud Loubani spoke to General Al-Sisi over a speakerphone and got the general to promise to release the two within the week.
The two returned to Canada last Friday.
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