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Canadians Held 50 Days in Egyptian Prison After Documenting Massacre Speak Out Following Release

StoryNovember 01, 2013
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As Egypt sets a date for ousted President Mohamed Morsi to stand trial for inciting the murder of protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood calls for mass demonstrations, we speak with two people who witnessed one of the bloodiest massacres of Morsi supporters by Egyptian state forces. Acclaimed Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and emergency room medical doctor Tarek Loubani were in Cairo on August 16, en route to a humanitarian mission in Gaza, when they went to film a protest and then rushed to the scene of a massacre — Greyson reportedly began filming the shooting’s aftermath while Loubani treated some of the injured. Then, along with 600 Egyptians that day, the pair of Canadians were swept up and detained without charge. They were held in cockroach-infested jail cells with as many as 36 other inmates. Greyson and Loubani launched a hunger strike, while supporters in Canada mounted a massive campaign to lobby for their release. Then, in early October, the pair were freed. They have since returned home to Canada, where they continue to call for the release of their Egyptian cellmates who remain imprisoned. We go to Toronto, where we are joined by Greyson, who is also a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. And in Ontario, we’re joined by Tarek Loubani, an assistant professor at Western University. He is a Palestinian refugee and one of the architects of the Canada-Gaza academic collaboration, a project that brings doctors from the West to Gaza to train physicians.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Egypt, where security forces have captured one of the last remaining prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood still at large after a coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July. The senior leader in the Brotherhood’s political arm, Essam el-Erian, was seized on Wednesday on charges of inciting violence. Hours after authorities announced his detention, police entered Al-Azhar University campus in Cairo, where they opened tear—opened fire with tear gas and arrested pro-Morsi student demonstrators.

Egypt has set a date of November 4th for Morsi to stand trial for inciting the murders of protesters. The Associated Press reports some 20,000 police officers and soldiers will guard the upcoming trial. On Thursday, a Muslim Brotherhood coalition called for mass demonstrations across the country against the trial. Morsi [faces] charges surrounding the deaths of at least 10 demonstrators killed in a protest against his government last December. Hundreds of Morsi supporters have been killed by state forces since his ouster.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we spend the remainder of the hour with two people who witnessed one of the bloodiest massacres of Morsi supporters by Egyptian state forces. They’re acclaimed Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and emergency room medical doctor Tarek Loubani. On August 16, they rushed to the scene of a massacre. Greyson reportedly began filming the shooting’s aftermath, while Loubani treated some of the injured. Then, along with 600 Egyptians, the pair of Canadians were swept up and detained without charge. They were held in cockroach-infested jail cells with as many as 36 other prisoners. Greyson and Loubani launched a hunger strike, while supporters in Canada mounted a massive campaign to lobby for their release. Then, early October, the pair were freed. They’ve since returned home to Canada, where they continue to call for the release of their Egyptian cellmates who remain imprisoned.

We’re going now to Toronto, where we’re joined by John Greyson, the Canadian filmmaker and member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. And in Ontario, we’re joined by Tarek Loubani, an emergency room medical doctor, assistant professor at Western University in London, Ontario. He’s a Palestinian refugee and one of the architects of the Canada-Gaza academic collaboration, a project that brings doctors from the West to Gaza to train physicians.

John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, welcome to Democracy Now! We are so glad you’re free. Dr. Loubani, let’s begin with you. I understand that you’re wearing clothes that are still drenched in the blood of both a patient you treated as well as yourself.

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Yes, Amy. Thank you very much for having us to discuss these important issues. There are many ways that people sort of deal with their trauma and remembering what happened. For me, one of them is holding onto these clothes, which we were wearing when we were arrested, which I wore through the day of the massacre, and which were—which are still somewhat blood-soaked, despite my repeated attempts to wash them. So, yeah, just a little way to remember and give homage to the people who we treated that day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tarek Loubani, could you—could you refresh the memories of our viewers and listeners as to why you were in Cairo, how long you had been there before the day of the protest?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Well, we had barely arrived in Cairo, actually. We were on our way to Gaza, which is where John and I had planned on being. The Gaza Strip has, of course, an Israeli siege, a military siege, that prevents everything from getting in or out. And for a couple of years, there was this little bit of a breathing space, which was the Rafah border, which we could cross to go in there. So, I would go in to participate in Palestinian training of doctors. They had a very powerful attempt and program there to try to bring in people from outside to help get their standards up to international standards, especially for their new emergency program. So, that’s where we were headed.

We had been in Egypt for a remarkably short period of time, when we had heard that these protests would be going on. Basically, it came down to a choice of staying in our hotel room or going out there and being with the protesters on the street.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, John Greyson, take it from there. You were there. There was this protest. What happened next?

JOHN GREYSON: We arrived at the protest location, which was Ramses Square. It had barely begun. There was just a little bit of tear gas in the air. People were still assembling, when there was a call for “Doctor! Doctor!” Tarek responded. The people were carrying someone who had been badly shot. There was some negotiation. The decision was made to move the patient into the mosque, which was on the side of Ramses Square. And we followed, Tarek as doctor and me with my camera. And the rest of the afternoon was spent, as Tarek said, basically in this makeshift, improvised field hospital with—trying to treat and trying to document the unfolding massacre.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Greyson, what about that massacre? What did you witness yourself?

JOHN GREYSON: For me, it was—it’s hard to think of a worse day in my life. The shock of it’s still with me every day. There was initially—that was the—we accompanied the first body to go into the field hospital, or the mosque. By the time our five hours there was over, there had been over—we counted about 50 bodies. The body count for the entire day is around a hundred, though not all the bodies came through the mosque. They went through other hospitals, as well.

But there was, on the one hand, this extraordinary volunteer effort of other doctors, other nurses and volunteers, just ordinary citizens trying to help people, trying to save lives. There was my camera and a number of other cameras documenting what was going on, trying to make some sort of record of this—of these wounds to the neck, to the head, to the bodies of these unarmed protesters. It’s—there’s no other word: It was a massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Loubani, I mean, you are a doctor, Tarek. What are the kinds of wounds you saw? What were the weapons used by the regime against the protesters?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: In context, I have a lot of experience with war wounds. I’ve acted as a doctor in Gaza now for several years. As well, I traveled during my training to Iraq and to South Lebanon. So I know war wounds; I can tell them apart.

In this particular case, one of the amazing things about it is that almost all of the wounds for the first half of the day were small caliber, very small holes, and almost all in the head and neck. So, these were quite indicative of sniper shots. The thing that surprised me initially was how there could be so many so fast. And only after getting out of jail did I finally realize that, you know, the snipers were lined up on the rooftop, you know, shooting at these unarmed, nonviolent demonstrators. They were nonviolent almost to a fault. I mean, we heard, within our jail cell, people saying that even when they saw their comrades fall, they would tighten the line and keep marching in an unarmed way with their hands up and so on. So, this was the injury pattern in the first half: head and neck, almost all sniper shots. After that, it moved to more chest shots, multiple shots—so, indicative of sort of assault rifles. And then, towards the end of the day, mounted machine guns.

AMY GOODMAN: And for our TV viewers, we are showing file footage of various moments on various days, the kind of wounds that people are suffering. Talk about being taken to jail, John and Tarek. Talk about what happened next. How did you get taken in?

JOHN GREYSON: We had to wait until it was safe to leave the mosque, and so it was after curfew. We made our way through the streets, and the streets were very quiet. The whole city was in shock because of what had happened. We were trying to get to our hotel, which was on the river. There was a police cordon which ran parallel to the river, which prevented any crossing over. We tried at one police checkpoint, saying, “Look, there’s our hotel. Can we get through?” They turned us away. We went to a second one, and at that point we were only about a hundred yards from our hotel. We could point to it and say, “Look, there it is.” And that was when they detained us. We didn’t know at first they were arresting us. We thought, “Well, you know, they’ll ask us a few questions and then let us through. Surely our Canadian passports are going to give us some sort of—some sort of through.” But in fact, no, were we ever wrong on that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what—where did they take you at first, and when did you begin to realize that you were going to be held indefinitely?


DR. TAREK LOUBANI: I think John and I probably had different moments—

JOHN GREYSON: They questioned us at that station, roughed us up a bit—Tarek got a broken nose and a bloody nose out of it—then taken overnight to another police station housed in a—they were so overcrowded, they housed us in an office sleeping under the desks with 20 other guys. And then, the next day, the Saturday, we were taken in a paddy wagon, 40 guys in a paddy wagon, left in the sun for three hours to bake in the Cairo sun, and then finally admitted into Tora prison. And that was, of course, greeted by the welcoming committee. Tarek can tell the Arabic phrase for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Tarek, why don’t you take it from there?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: So, the welcoming committee—I mean, the abuse of prisoners and detainees in Egypt is systematic. It happens to everybody who walks through the doors. It’s so common that it actually has this euphemism, haflet istiqbal. You know, “the welcoming party,” actually, would be a better translation for it.

And the welcoming party really started while we were still in the transport vehicle, where five people actually ended up with pretty severe heatstroke, one of whom I was pretty convinced would die within about an hour. He had reached a point where he could no longer speak and had become unconscious. So, we were sort of put through this process. And then, when we had had enough, and beyond that, the door was opened, and we exited only to find two lines of people, some with batons and some with cattle prods, to beat us on exit. We came through these two lines to find another series of people who were hitting with their hands and feet, one of them who actually struck prisoners so hard that his hand actually broke as a result—what we would call a boxer’s fracture. And then after that, it became sort of the very systematic abuse of certain people who were targeted. So, a few people were pulled out, about five of us, including John and I, for special treatment, in which we were beaten in front of the other prisoners quite severely.

John’s beating was so complete and exquisite that he actually had this very detailed bootprint on his back, which, you know, every time anybody would sort of ask me, “Were you hit?” all I would need to do was raise his shirt and show this perfect bootprint that showed both how hard he was hit and also, to anybody who knew anything about medicine, how focused the hitting was. They’re very careful not to break ribs, though they accidentally broke one of mine. They are careful not to hit the face, because I think they’ve been instructed that such things don’t really look good in the media. So, the abuse was systematic, and it was quite complete.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And at what point were you able to get word out to the Canadian embassy and try to begin to get some public attention to your situation, John Greyson?

JOHN GREYSON: There was a cellphone left in the first paddy wagon, and we were able to make a call to our friend Justin in Canada before the phone was confiscated. The embassy was—the embassy searched—the Canadian embassy searched all the prisons in Cairo, finally found us. It was hard to find us because I had been entered under the wrong name. They entered me under John Richard, my middle name, not John Greyson, my real name. So—but they found us by Sunday, which was remarkable, and from then on were able to visit about once a week for 10 minutes. That was, for the 50 days, our only contact with the world, squeezed into 10 minutes with every bit of contact with family, with friends, with loved ones, my partner, so—and our legal strategy and every—every bit of the world squeezed into that 10 minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: You made illustrations, John, of your fellow cellmates.

JOHN GREYSON: I don’t speak Arabic, and so there was about five guys who did, and we formed a little English conversation group. So we would, you know, talk about—I’d try and correct grammar as they worked on the vocabulary. But for the rest of the guys, my way of getting to know them was through drawing. And so, my portraits were popular. They were also a source of hilarity, because none of them really resembled the guys I was drawing, so we would joke that they could never be used in a court of law. They’re bad—they’re not good representations. But the idea was, I’d do one for them and one for me. And so, the one for them often they’d give to a fiancée or a mother or a family member during their own family visits. We had two of our fellow prisoners miss their weddings, and so all they could really give to their fiancées was a couple of bad portraits.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tarek Loubani, what about your fellow inmates? The coup government would have the world believe that they were largely Muslim Brotherhood cadre who were bent on creating unrest in the wake of the coup. What did you find?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Well, we very much entered the situation assuming the same thing, because we had been following the media, which was heavily influenced by the Egyptian official narrative. So, when we went into the jail cell, we saw that, you know, there were a bunch of people who had beards, and assumed they must be the Brotherhood. What we ended up finding, there were a couple of things. Within the jail, there were three Brotherhood members within our jail—our first jail cell, of 38, including John and I. And three of them were Brotherhood—ironically, the three with no beards, other than John and I—we also had no beards. But it was not Brotherhood members. It was very much people who were concerned about their country.

You know, Juan, I noticed you had said pro-Morsi about the Al-Azhar protesters, but these are largely kids who probably don’t really care about Morsi, but really only care about the democracy. They might be pro-Brotherhood, but really what we noticed, and what I assume is probably still true for these protesters, is that they just don’t want a military dictatorship. They want a country that makes sense. They feel that they worked very hard for this democracy and that it was slipping between their fingers. That’s what we observed and what we saw.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we want to talk to you about your hunger strike, about the charges against you and how you ultimately got out and what happened to the men who remain behind. We’re talking to John Greyson, a Canadian filmmaker, member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, and Tarek Loubani. He is a Palestinian doctor and professor at Western University in London, Ontario. John and Tarek were actually headed to Gaza through the Rafah border to—for Tarek to train and John to film him training doctors in the emergency room in Gaza. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with the pair of Canadians who were recently released from an Egyptian prison after spending nearly two months detained. They had rushed to the scene of a massacre in August to treat wounded protesters and film what was taking place, when they were arrested—John Greyson, a Canadian filmmaker, member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid; Tarek Loubani, emergency room medical doctor, assistant professor at Western University in London, Ontario, a Palestinian refugee, one of the architects of the Canada-Gaza academic collaboration that brings doctors from the West to Gaza to train physicians.

So talk about being in jail, Tarek, and when you decided to go on a hunger strike.

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Well, the entire process in jail was very much about controlling and dominating us. And this, of course, happened physically, just by virtue of our captivity, but it also happened psychologically. So, for example, we never felt like we had any input into the judicial process. We were actually never interrogated by the prosecutor’s office about what we had seen or what we were doing. We really felt that we were voiceless.

And so, John, myself and actually the rest of the prisoners in our first room had these discussions about how it was that we could have some—take back a little bit of control or assert ourselves to speak with the world around us. And we realized, ultimately, that there was no way to do this. Our messages were not getting out. We were not able to even communicate with our lawyers effectively, or at all. Our first meeting was only the last day before we were released. And so, we finally decided to go on hunger strike. And the value of hunger strike is one that I think every two-year-old understands. I mean, when you have no other power, you always have the ability to hunger strike.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Greyson, what was the reaction of the—of your fellow inmates, not only to the hunger strike, but just to the reality of having two Canadians jailed with them at the same time?

JOHN GREYSON: When we were brought into the prison with the welcoming party, all the other prisoners witnessed this beating of the Kanadi and the Falestine, so there was already a huge amount of solidarity and support for us. And really, the other 36 in the first cell went out of their way to take care of us. They were, you know, always giving us the last piece of—last piece of food, the last tomato, etc. There was incredible caring and real concern for us, and also a real interest in the work we were trying to do in solidarity with Gaza.

That said, when we discussed hunger strike, the fellow prisoners were really split in terms of their advice. They said, “Watch out. It’s very dangerous. The prison will throw you in solitary.” So there was a lot of strategizing and getting good advice from them about how to proceed. We decided to do a liquids-only hunger strike and not do it through the official prison channels, so it would have maximum impact in terms of outreach to the world and make the statement we wanted it to make, but we didn’t—we really didn’t want to subject ourselves to the extreme situation of solitary.

AMY GOODMAN: John, were you concerned about the authorities finding out that you are gay?

JOHN GREYSON: Of course. We had already been accused of being Hamas agents, of being Mossad agents—to, on top of that, be gay agents out to corrupt Egyptians, the good—the good people of Egypt, was a very genuine fear. At the same time, it’s a Google away. It’s the easiest thing to find out about me. I’ve ironically made three films about prison, gay love stories about love in—about life in prison. But—and so, it’s also ironic that I made the films and then did my research just recently. I had never spent a night in jail before this experience.

But at the same time, I think people who overstress that issue tend to go towards a set of assumptions and prejudices around Arabic culture and Islamic culture, saying, “Oh, it’s”—the West assumes, “Oh, it’s overwhelmingly homophobic.” I actually think it’s much more complicated and nuanced. And it’s about, are you forcing, in the Western way, a coming-out agenda onto people, or are you being a person that they get to know, and then it becomes part of what they discuss or don’t discuss? In our particular case, it didn’t come out in—to our—our fellow prisoners didn’t find out. The guards didn’t find out. So it remains an unanswered question. But it certainly was there as a concern.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Greyson—

JOHN GREYSON: And the other irony was that Tarek and I were very interested in going to that larger prison called Gaza to continue conversations about LGBT issues on the ground in Gaza. I work with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, who works with queers in Palestine, queers in the West Bank, on a bunch of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions actions and projects. But that conversation in Gaza is still at a different stage. So, we were hoping that would be the work we were going to be doing. That’s been postponed, but hopefully sometime in the future.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Greyson, the Egyptian authorities claimed at one point that they found some drone-like surveillance equipment in your hotel. Could you talk about that?

JOHN GREYSON: Tarek can probably speak best to what were two quadcopters used for medical testing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tarek, could you talk about that?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Yeah. So, I mean, the context here is that anybody who knows me knows that I’m a geek, and I very much enjoy sort of playing with new technologies and trying to bring these new technologies into applications into which they weren’t necessarily designed. After having read and seen lots of good work that happened in South Africa using the same technology, which basically uses GPS-guided aerial vehicles, like basically little planes with a GPS computer on them, to take stuff from one place to the other, I had been thinking about the same thing both in London, Ontario, where I work, and in the Gaza Strip, where the distances aren’t very large, but the terrain can be very brutal. So, getting from one hospital to another, both in London and in Gaza, is a remarkably difficult task. And there’s centralization in Gaza, especially, of lots of the testing, so to get it effectively done, you’d have to put it in a taxi, and three hours later it might show up at the place where it needed to be. Our goal really with this technology was then to try to experiment with ways of transporting things or ways of moving things.

The interesting thing about it is that this technology is available off the shelf in downtown Cairo. And the Egyptians themselves, even though we were worried, didn’t really make a big deal out of it. They were much more worried about John’s footage, and having reviewed the YouTube videos available, I can see why. His footage was probably the best footage of that day. Instead, it ended up being sort of a cudgel that was used in Canada by a couple of the right-wing commentators here as an attempt to plant us as spies or, I don’t know, Hamas agents or something, as though, you know, a Canadian doctor and his, like, gay filmmaker friend, who were both going to Gaza, were really the best vehicle for smuggling, instead of the tunnels that bring in thousands of rockets. So, really, it was never an issue. It was just like taking in any other medical equipment. However, because of lots of the—what was going on ideologically, ended up being used in the Western media here, and Canada especially.

AMY GOODMAN: So, John’s film is confiscated, though we’re able to show other footage of that day, because there were a number of cameras there. But, Tarek, if you could talk about the reaction to you as a Canadian Palestinian, what was the authorities’ and the other prisoners’ reaction? And then talk about your father coming to Cairo to try to get you both released.

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Well, in terms of being a Palestinian, being a Palestinian going through Egypt over the last few years has been a variable experience. And so, sometimes when the propaganda was sort of pro-Palestinian, it would be a very comfortable experience, and many other times it would be uncomfortable, to say the least. And this is the experience, really, of all Palestinians traveling through Egypt. Mine, of course, is mitigated by the fact that I speak English fluently and that I carry a Canadian passport. John and I always sort of said that like we had these two coming-out processes, the two closets—you know, John as a gay person and me as a Palestinian. And I really chose and I found it really important in my case to talk about being a Palestinian, and that was a very, very costly decision. It was quite costly. In fact, it was one of the main triggers that we got arrested. My Palestinian accent did me in. And when I was asked if I was—if I was Palestinian, I confirmed it, and that was the moment at which we were kind of physically arrested and brought into the station. The odds are, if I would have told them, “No, I’m a Canadian,” that would have been the end of that conversation. So, being a Palestinian in jail was not very easy. Being a Palestinian in Egypt was, of course, not very easy. But I thought, at least, it was important for me to hold onto that part of my identity.

In terms of my father coming, you know, my father, of course, like any—any parent, was sort of burning up on the inside, wondering what he could do and feeling helpless, and ultimately decided that he would come after the 45-day renewal. The 45-day renewal, we had basically been in for 45 days and were renewed, unbeknownst to us at the time, for another 45 days, and it really represented the Egyptian government thumbing its nose at the international community and at really any semblance of a just or proper judicial process. So, at that point, my father came to see what he could do. And his intention was to raise the media flags in Egypt and start talking about the issue and try to humanize John and I. He was ultimately able to do that. It was a big surprise to us when we saw him. And it coincided with the Egyptian government sort of starting to realize that they had an international problem on their hands. He was able to speak directly to the entire Cabinet and pitch our case, you know, say who we were as people and as human beings. And, you know, the extent and the impact was there. Though it’s unclear sort of how influential that was, it is clear that, in concert with everything else, it was definitely a contributor—

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute—two minutes—

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: —which is great. I mean, I think every father wants to be the hero.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have two minutes to go, so, very quickly, if you could tell us what’s happened to the men who remain in prison and what role the Canadian government played? I mean, there were supporters and activists in Canada and throughout the world who were pushing for both of your release.

JOHN GREYSON: We got out because of extraordinary pressure mobilized by an incredible grassroots coalition, you know, everybody from the prime minister, our right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to kids’ drawings, six-year-old kids making drawings and getting them out there. We feel everybody’s efforts made the difference and made the difference together. It’s important to thank our Canadian government for the work they did. It’s also important to emphasize that it was—we were a convenient for them. We were a way of them to be seen to be doing something about Egypt without actually ever criticizing the coup. So, we’re grateful, and we’re critical.

With our fellow prisoners, the 600 remain in jail. They’re up for—they hit the 90-day mark of November 11th, and we’ll see if they get renewed or released. Every time we’ve tried to look in the crystal ball and predict, we’ve been proven wrong. So, I don’t know, Tarek, if you have any insight.

AMY GOODMAN: Tarek, final comments in these seconds we have?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: I mean, I think that these 600 people are going to get renewed, because right now there isn’t the international pressure to get them out. This is not a fair judicial process. This is very much a political witch hunt against, essentially, people with beards. So, we have to apply pressure to the government to release them. I’m not saying charge them, because as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence against them. They should be released.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, and we are so glad you are free. We will continue to follow the story of what is taking place in Egypt. Tarek Loubani is a doctor and professor at Western University in London, Ontario, where he’s speaking to us from. And John Greyson, filmmaker, member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. They were imprisoned by the Egyptian regime for 50 days and ultimately released.

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