Beaten, Stripped and Shaved Bald: Canadians Endure Harsh Treatment in Egyptian Jail

The following transcript is taken from Democracy Now!'s October 2nd broadcast.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Egypt, where a pair of Canadians have been jailed for over a month and a half without charge. John Greyson, an acclaimed Toronto filmmaker, and Tarek Loubani, a doctor, were arrested in Cairo on August 16th. The two were slated to visit Gaza, where Greyson was to film Loubani as he trained emergency room doctors. In a statement smuggled out of their prison cell, Greyson and Loubani say they were arrested after rushing to the scene of a mass shooting by state forces of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Greyson says he began filming the shooting’s aftermath while Loubani treated some of the injured.

AMY GOODMAN: They said, quote, "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." They’ve since been held in cockroach-infested jail cells with as many as 36 other people. Over the weekend, Egyptian authorities confirmed their imprisonment has been extended another 45 days, still without charge. Greyson and Loubani have been on a hunger strike for the past two weeks. Earlier this week, their Egyptian attorney criticized their detention.

MARWA FAROUK: [translated] We presented all the documents that proved they were in Egypt only in transit and by coincidence, because they were going to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza so that Tarek could offer assistance to the emergency ward and for John to make a film. We provided all the documents that prove this and that they were present at the location by pure coincidence. Despite that, they’re imprisonment continues for a month and a half now. We carried out all the legal processes, we provided documents, and we presented a complaint to the public prosecutor and the public lawyer, and appealed the extension of imprisonment, but all these things have been rejected without any solution offered.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was attorney Marwa Farouk. According to a report in the Toronto Star, Tarek Roubani and John Greyson could face murder charges. Justin Podur, a lead supporter of the men, said the men were arrested after witnessing a massacre.

JUSTIN PODUR: They said they saw 50 people killed, before they lost count. Their attackers yelled that they were Canadian as they were beating them and kicking them. They were put in a hot box. They were shaved bald. And then eventually they ended up in this prison cell with 38 other prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by three guests. Cecilia Greyson is the sister of Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, one of the detained men. She’s joining us from Halifax. Naomi Klein is also with us, the well-known Canadian journalist and author—her most recent book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She recently signed an open letter calling for the men’s release. And we will be joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Egypt.

But first, Cecilia, can you talk about what you know about John and Tarek right now?

CECILIA GREYSON: Well, we know they were visited last Thursday by consular staff, and they were reported to be in good health at that point. Today is day 47 of their detainment, and we’re hoping that consular staff and a doctor will be able to visit them today just to check out their health. As you mentioned, they have been on a hunger strike for over two weeks now, so we are concerned to get a report on the—you know, an update on their health and their condition.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Cecilia Greyson, have you or anyone in the family been in touch directly with your brother, with John Greyson?

CECILIA GREYSON: No, there’s been no—we’ve had no phone contact or direct contact with John or Tarek during this entire time. You know, they are able to speak with our lawyers and consular staff when they visit, but we’ve only been able to send messages to them through our lawyers and consular staff. There’s no other way of communicating with them. So they’ve been essentially cut off from the outside world for 47 days.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about John and Tarek? You know both of them. Of course, your brother is John Greyson.

CECILIA GREYSON: Yeah, absolutely. John, you know, as you mentioned, is an award-winning filmmaker. He is a professor of film in Toronto and is known around the world for his work in film and in civil rights activism. Tarek is an emergency room physician. He is a professor—an assistant professor of medicine at a university in Canada in London, Ontario. And he is also—he’s a member of the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. He is very interested in working with individuals in conflict zones, which is why he was doing this work at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, where he trains doctors and nurses in emergency critical care procedures.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, you, like John and Tarek and Cecilia, are from Canada. What is your government, the Canadian government, the government of Stephen Harper, doing to free these men?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, all we know is what they’re saying publicly. And I think there’s—you know, there’s different levels of government. Cecilia can talk more about the dealings with the consular staff. I think they’ve done a huge amount to support John and Tarek in prison, to try to make their lives as comfortable as possible. You know, I think there are individuals in the Canadian government who really care passionately about this case and have been working very hard. But there has been concern, and it’s expressed very openly in the Canadian press and online, that at the highest levels, certainly at the level of the prime minister, there has not been enough pressure. As far as we know, our prime minister has yet to call his Egyptian counterpart personally and demand the men’s release. He waited until last Sunday to issue a statement calling for their release publicly, but that was, you know, a statement made to the Canadian media. Whether he has relayed that directly and explained that there are consequences, real consequences, to the Egyptian government, is another matter entirely.

The other thing is that, in Stephen Harper’s statements, he’s left himself this very unsettling loophole, where he keeps saying, "In the absence of charges, these men should be freed." The charges—any charges that may be laid against them—and we’ve seen this outrageous grab-bag list that is being flung at almost 200 people, as far as I understand, that includes everything from murder to attacking a police station, it’s—you know, it’s a fishing expedition, it’s absurd. We know what these men were doing: They were doing their jobs as humanitarians. Tarek was responding to calls for emergency medical aid. As an emergency doctor, that is his duty. And John, as a filmmaker—and I should say, he’s a dear friend of mine, I know him well, I’ve known him for many, many years—and he was doing what I hope I would have done in that situation, which is grab the camera and get out there, document history. You know, they weren’t in Cairo because of the demonstrations. They were, as you said, just passing through. But, you know, Amy, I think you know, as a journalist, that when history is unfolding, when people are dying in the streets, we have a duty to bear witness. And that’s what John was doing. And we haven’t heard our government say, "These men are innocent. They were doing their jobs. They must be released right now." And that’s what we’re waiting for. We’re waiting to hear that kind of clear, unequivocal statement from our prime minister and from our foreign minister.

And we’re also waiting to hear that if they continue to be ignored and disregarded by the Egyptian government, which has happened—which has been what’s happened so far, that there will be real consequences. You know, we heard just for the first time yesterday from our foreign minister, John Baird, that there will be consequences. He didn’t outline what kind of consequences, and we’d like to hear those consequences outlined, because our foreign minister and our prime minister have more power than just issuing statements and making phone calls. There’s also a huge amount of trade back and forth between Canada and Egypt. There are a lot of Canadian companies, particularly resource companies, that are clamoring to get into Egypt right now to engage in mineral extraction. There was actually a little mini conference while—since John and Tarek have been in prison, with Canadian companies talking about what a great opportunity this moment is for them. Now, all of these companies would be getting support from the Canadian Export Development Corporation, which is the equivalent of our Import-Export Bank. So, the Harper government could be saying to the Egyptian government, "We will pull our support for foreign investment." That’s a real threat that matters, because Egypt’s economy is in real trouble now. And I think that if Egyptians saw that these human rights violations were costing them economic stability, that that would get their attention, and there would be consequences for this regime at home. That’s the kind of—that’s the kind of pressure we want to see. And if we don’t see it, I think what we’re going to start seeing is grassroots economic pressure, boycotts of major Egyptian corporations and the tourism sector, which is a very important part of the Egyptian economy. You know, if this can happen to two Canadians passing through Cairo, just performing their duty—they can end up in prison without charges now for 47 days—you know, I don’t know about you, but I’m not in any rush to travel to Egypt. And the Egyptian government needs to hear that message loud and clear, that there are our economic consequences, that people aren’t going to be visiting the Pyramids until John and Tarek are out of prison.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come, we’ll continue with Cecilia Greyson, [sister] of John Greyson—she’s speaking to us from Halifax; Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, a close friend of John Greyson’s—she’s speaking to us from her home in Canada; and we’re going to Cairo to speak with Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is also following this case.Democracy Now! correspondent, writer for The Nation. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. We’re talking about a pair of Canadians who have been jailed for over a month and a half without charge—John Greyson an acclaimed Toronto filmmaker, and Tarek Loubani, a doctor—arrested in Cairo on August 16th, slated to visit Gaza, where Greyson was going to film Dr. Loubani as he trained emergency room doctors.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous is standing by in Cairo, Egypt. Sharif, can you explain the case, why these two men, Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, have been arrested, held for more than a month and a half by Egypt?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it’s anyone’s guess why they’re still being held. I was there that day on August 16th, that came just two days after the very brutal dispersal of the two main sit-ins that formed the epicenter of support for Mohamed Morsi, the ousted president. That day, more than 600 people had been killed across the country, one of the bloodiest in Egypt’s modern history. Two days later, on that Friday, August 16th, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters had called for, what they said, a day of rage in protest of the crackdown, and it quickly descended into some of the fiercest clashes we’ve seen in Cairo, in Egypt, since the beginning of the revolution. Citizens were firing on each other with live ammunition. There was helicopters flying overhead. People were using firebombs and rocks. Morsi supporters at one point were trapped on a bridge and were forced to jump off the bridge to avoid bullets, and people landing on the floor and collapsing—a very, very violent and chaotic scene.

And this is the scene that John and Tarek found themselves in, right in the thick of it, near Azbakeya police station. And as they said in their letter, you know, someone yelled out "Doctor!" for all these people injured, and Tarek went into—went into action and started treating people, and John began to film, to bear witness. And they got swept up with more than 600 other people that day who got arrested, as well. All those 600 other Egyptians, nearly all of them, are still in prison, like John and Tarek. They face the litany of charges, the same laundry list of charges, that include murder and arson and attacking a police station, that John and Tarek do. So, this is, you know, part of a severe crackdown that’s happening. What is surprising is that, as Westerners, as Canadians, that they haven’t been spared the abuses of the Egyptian government, which is usually saved for Egyptian citizens. And so, it’s anybody’s guess as to why they’re still being held.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Dr. Loubani was actually treating people there, and afterwards they actually went up to the military to ask directions back to their hotel, and it was there, at that checkpoint, that they arrested them?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, he said in the letter that he helped treat some wounded people, and then they went to go—they got some ice cream, and they were looking for something to eat while things had calmed down a bit. And they walked up to a checkpoint. There was many checkpoints around that area, a lot of military and police. And that’s when they were arrested. And he said they were taken into the police station. They were beaten. Their heads were shaved. They had a picture taken next to them—next to a, quote-unquote, "Syrian terrorist" and thrown into a cell with 36 other people in a very small, cramped area. It’s important to remember, this is the treatment that many ordinary Egyptians receive from what is a very abusive security state, and they were caught up in it. And for reasons that are inexplicable, they continue to be held. This latest extension of their detention, pending investigation, is for 45 days. That’s the maximum that the prosecutors are allowed to extend detentions. You can either do it by 15-day periods, and they had been held in three successive 15-day periods up until a few days ago, whereupon the prosecutor gave the worst possible decision to extend it by 45 days, delaying any kind of hearing or possibility of their release until mid-November.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go back to Cecilia Greyson, John Greyson’s sister. Cecilia, can you explain how the Canadian government has been talking to you and your family to assist in your brother’s release?

CECILIA GREYSON: Yeah. Well, certainly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Canada has been very concerned about this case from the beginning. They—the staff maintain—consular staff in Cairo maintain constant contact with staff in Ottawa, who then maintain almost daily contact with members of both families, both Tarek and our family. And so, we—they have expressed great concern about this, and certainly the staff have worked tirelessly to facilitate visits with John and Tarek in Cairo, to assist our lawyers in whatever way they can in Cairo, and to keep the families informed. And, you know, certainly, Foreign Minister John Baird, as Naomi mentioned, has issued statements and met with the Egyptian foreign minister and expressed concern around this case. And Prime Minister Harper also expressed concern on Sunday night about this case. And certainly, you know, they—we have assurances that they have been working very diligently, but, you know, we still haven’t had results, unfortunately.

And so, we’re certainly encouraging the Canadian government to keep up this pressure and to make this pressure as overt as possible, in terms of talking to their Egyptian counterparts, you know, in terms of Prime Minister Harper talking to the interim prime minister in Egypt, and just continuing to keep up this pressure, because this has continued for 47 days now, with an extension going into another 45 days or 44 days—43 days now. And so, you know, we’re at the point now of saying this has already gone on too long. John and Tarek have been mistreated at the time of their arrest, you know, saddled with many accusations that are absolutely ludicrous, held without charges. You know, for the first 30 days, they were in a cell with 38 other individuals. They’re now in a cell with six other individuals, but the entire time they’ve been sleeping on concrete. And we’ve had no access to phone calls at all during this entire time. So, it’s been very difficult circumstances for John and Tarek, and we’re certainly, you know, encouraging the Canadian government to be as diligent as possible in putting pressure on Egypt to release John and Tarek immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, what is the interest of the Canadian government here? What is the relationship between the Morsi government and the Canadian government, and now the military government that’s in power?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I mean, I think it’s no secret that the Canadian government is—you know, we often say it’s keeping the George W. Bush dream alive in lots of ways, you know, whether it’s climate change or just unquestioning support for Israel. Canada is—the Canadian government under Stephen Harper has become extraordinarily hostile to the United Nations. Our status on the world stage has really plummeted. So, part of what’s going on is, you know, Canadians are wondering whether we are experiencing some of the blowback from the way in which our government has behaved on the world stage, and, in particular, its unquestioning support for Israel, whether that has just led to the government losing status in the region, because we clearly don’t have the influence that we thought we had.

And I think, you know, there’s a couple things that flow from that.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I think the first thing we want is, if the Canadian government doesn’t have the power to do this on its own, we really hope that they will engage their allies, at the State Department or the foreign office in Gulf states, to push for their release. But, you know, our greater concern is, is that they’re just not pushing hard enough, because they really do want the stability that this government represents in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, Cecilia Greyson, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, we want to thank you for being with us. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, now working on a book on climate change. Cecilia Greyson is the sister of John Greyson, speaking to us from Halifax. And Democracy Now! correspondent, Nation fellow, Sharif Abdel Kouddous was speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt. And congratulations to Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill for winning an Emmy for their documentary, In Tahrir: 18 Days of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution, featuring Sharif.

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