This Is What It’s Like To Be a Journalist in an Egyptian Prison
According to an Al Jazeera cameraman who spent seven months locked up in one
By Mohamed Badr
It was July 15, 2013, the sixth day of Ramadan. I was standing on a footbridge over Rameses Square in downtown Cairo, and below me, lit by the harsh white light of the streetlamps, thousands of people were kneeling and rising in prayer.
A protest against the coup [when the military overthrew president Mohamed Morsi] was about to begin, and on the far side of the square I saw the police and the plainclothes thugs who work with them gathering. Before the prayer finished, canisters of tear gas came arching through the square.
I’d filmed perhaps 20 such clashes before, and had never worried about the police. But this was the first time since the coup, and when I saw the scenes of chaos unfold below me, I started to feel: this time, it’s different.
Three tear gas shells landed nearby and I was choking. Suddenly, five thugs surrounded me and took my camera. Images flashed through my mind of a video I saw on YouTube of a man who had been beaten by thugs, with his body covered in cuts, and I was afraid.
When you die, you feel nothing, but I was scared of the torture.
In the confusion, I was grabbed by some thugs and led to a senior police officer. He raised his gun and pressed it to my head. “Do you work for Al Jazeera?” he asked. At that moment, I thought perhaps I was about to die. I told him that I did.
I’d become a journalist in 2008 and worked as a cameraman for Al Jazeera since May 2011. Even as the tear gas and birdshot was crashing all around me that evening, I stayed because I believe in my job: to transmit the truth to people who are not there, and perhaps even to protect people from the even-worse violence that happens when no one is watching.
The officer, who was called Amgad, brought the gun down and shoved me into the waiting minibus with eight others.
Amgad told the police who were taking us away: “If any protester approaches the vehicle, shoot them.”
One of the police told him, “This guy is a journalist.” I think he wanted the officer to know that he shouldn’t say that in front of me.
“Then we’ll kill him too,” Amgad shouted.
We were eventually transferred to a police station. As we entered, we were subjected to what they call the “welcoming party”: having to pass between two lines of thugs beating us as we went.
Inside the station, the nine of us were put in a room with another 22 people whose faces were so bloodied we could barely make out their features. We had no water, no food, and no toilet. Everyone of us was nervous.
We were blindfolded with our wrists cuffed behind our backs, kneeling on the floor, when the Public Prosecutor came to inspect us. This was the worst feeling in the world — to be insulted and humiliated, and have no redress.
I was accused of murder; attempted murder; three counts of arson; and possession of unlicensed broadcasting equipment.
After four days in the police station and more beating I was transferred to the maximum security prison known as “The Scorpion”.
The concrete cells there are supposed to hold one person, but five of us were rammed into each one, and the toilet is in one corner. There was no privacy.
In summer it was boiling hot, and in winter it was very cold. Many people fell sick, but there was no healthcare — the doctor used to beat people himself, I heard.
We were often beaten to wake us up in the morning, and every night I used to go to sleep believing I would be woken with a kick.
We had just 10 minutes exercise per day, and after such a long time sitting it became hard to walk. The food had insects in it.
Twenty days after I was arrested, my first child was born. Eighteen days after that I saw him for the first time—but for only five minutes. I remember the warders pushing my wife out of the room as I tried to hold on to my son. I couldn’t do anything to help her. She was crying. I felt so powerless. For three days I would break down in tears. I still cry when I think about it.
After five months I was moved to a different prison with a less bad reputation — but there they beat us on the soles of our feet in the mornings.
If someone came back from a visit to the Public Prosecutor, the guards would make them drink salt water so they would be sick — allegedly to throw up any contraband they might have swallowed. They put their fingers inside people [inside their anuses].
In the end, I was lucky. I think perhaps 10 percent of Egyptian judges pay attention to the evidence, and one of these had our case. But even once we were found innocent, the ordeal wasn’t over.
I was returned to the same police station which I was taken to that night in July. I was beaten again for hours, before, finally, I was released.
Honestly, I thought I would feel happier than I did. But I couldn’t stop thinking of all those other people in prison. I remembered my fellow prisoners. Their eyes were saying: don’t forget about us.
When I see my Al Jazeera colleagues on trial on television, I feel like I’m not free. I become agitated and I can’t bear to sit with my family. I see the eyes of my colleagues looking out from the same cage I was in.
As told to: Tom Dale