SHAFAQNA – Those are sounds from one of the bloodiest days of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. It happened in Cairo, August 14, 2013. Police opened fire on supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi. They were protesting the military coup that removed Morsi from power. By the end of that day, by one count, more than 1,000 protesters had been killed. Thousands more were detained, and one of them was the reporter we’ll meet next. Abdullah Elshamy works for Al Jazeera. His trouble started at a checkpoint.
ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: When they asked for my ID, it was an Egyptian passport, but was mostly visas – it had, like, Turkey visa in it and Qatar. Of course, you know, the regime of the country there doesn’t really like those countries. So they thought, well, this must be some kind of spy.
INSKEEP: He ended up spending 10 months in prison and sat down to talk about his experience. Egypt’s military-led government has come down hard on journalists, especially those from Al Jazeera. The country accuses the Arab network of fomenting dissent, but according to Elshamy, he was never actually accused of anything in particular.
For months, he was shuttled between three jails. He finally won his freedom in June for medical reasons. His organs were failing because he had been on a hunger strike. He’d lost about a third of his weight. Now that he’s free, he’s come for the first time to America, and we found him in New York.
ELSHAMY: The soldiers, the central security soldiers, the officers and the informants were just taking turns in beating me and insulting me. But later there was no much of physical torture. But it was mostly psychological torture from that point until I was released.
INSKEEP: When you say took turns beating you, do you mean with fists, with kicks, with a club? What were they doing?
ELSHAMY: Yes, they had batons and belts, and some of them would beat me on my neck, some on my face and some others would beat on the back. They were kind of, I would say, liking it because, I mean, this is what they were saying among them that, well, this is a traitor to his own homeland, and he should be punished.
INSKEEP: Now, it’s interesting the way you talk about that because it sounds like that was just part of the routine processing for someone who’s been brought into detention for Egyptian police. Is that right, a lot of people are treated just as you say?
ELSHAMY: Yes, yes that’s true.
INSKEEP: After that, things calmed down, and you said psychological torture was used. What do you mean by that?
ELSHAMY: When I was moved to the maximum security prison, I was kept in a solitary confinement for 37 days, and there was a total cut from the outside world. So it was quite painful.
INSKEEP: I need to mention, you said solitary confinement for 37 days. Solitary confinement is known to be extremely mentally disturbing. It can drive people insane. How did it affect you?
ELSHAMY: Actually it has affected me psychologically a lot. I get thoughts and nightmares about it, but, yeah, while I was there, it was quite painful. Sometimes I would start talking to myself. Sometimes I would start singing. Sometimes I would see birds on the window and try and imagine that I was talking to them because there was nobody to talk to. And there were times when I thought I was going to break down. Sometimes I would cry. Sometimes I would try and sleep as long as I could because it would actually not easy to, you know, carry on.
INSKEEP: Why did you begin a hunger strike?
ELSHAMY: I began a hunger strike because I lost hope in the justice system in the country because I was there for five months and nothing was really happening. There was not any kind of evidence even against me. There was not any kind of giving me a chance to talk to a judge or to at least see my lawyers. So I thought the only way for me to speak out and make some noise about it is to go into this. I knew it was going to be a long journey. Eventually, it led me to the goal I wanted, which is freedom.
INSKEEP: How many days was your hunger strike?
ELSHAMY: My hunger strike was for exactly 149 days – almost five months. The very first two weeks, I was taking only liquids like water, milk and juice. And later I started only taking water. My body was relying mostly on the fats I had because of my weight at that time.
INSKEEP: You lost a lot of weight.
ELSHAMY: Yes. I lost almost about 40 kilograms. I think my body was relying mostly on that.
INSKEEP: Forty kilograms, isn’t that something, like, close to 100 pounds that you lost?
ELSHAMY: I think so.
INSKEEP: Wow. Did they force-feed you at time?
ELSHAMY: Yes, actually that happened when I was moved to the maximum security prison. Two of them held me tightly, and the other took a piece of tuna and put it in my mouth.
INSKEEP: Were you ever charged with a crime?
ELSHAMY: I was never charged with a crime. Actually it was just mostly the charges that were brought up against every other detainee who was arrested on that day, on the 14 of August, and it was mainly charges like possessing weapons illegally, causing public disorder. There was not something specific against me as a journalist.
INSKEEP: Were you ever seriously interrogated or questioned?
ELSHAMY: Not at all. It didn’t happen at any time.
INSKEEP: No one even came by to talk to you about what you supposedly had done?
ELSHAMY: No, not at all. I mean – and this was the very main reason why I went on this hunger strike because I tried to put some sense in it, but I was not even allowed to speak to the judge or the prosecutor or even my lawyer. Nothing of this happened at all.
INSKEEP: Do you feel that you clearly understand why you were finally released?
ELSHAMY: I guess because it has to do because of the worldwide campaign against repression, you know, of journalists in Egypt, mainly me and my colleagues from Al Jazeera English. I also think when I was moved to the maximum security prison, they thought that moving me to that place would kind of keep me out of the coverage. But when that happened, that actually lead to more local support. We saw, you know, different kind of people – actors, writers and journalists joined the cause. So I think that really made a lot of change.
INSKEEP: You mentioned your colleagues from Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera English correspondents, as I’m sure you know very well, were also arrested and put on trial and convicted of various charges and are still in prison. It must have crossed your mind how easily you might still be in prison today or might have been lumped in with them.
ELSHAMY: Well, the main reason I’m here in New York is to lobby for them and tell American media that they should really put more pressure on the government, on the president, on secretary of state and any other official who has relation to this, that they have the power in their hands to actually make Egypt make the move and release them and let them be back with their families because there’s not any kind of hope in the justice system. You know, right now we’ve appealed the sentence last month ,and we are waiting for the appeal to take place, which it might be in a few months from now. And we’re very hopeful that they will walk free soon.
INSKEEP: You’ve had a life experience that most of us will hope to never have, having spent hundreds of days in prison for no reason that you could even identify. Did this experience teach you anything?
ELSHAMY: Well, it’s a lifetime experience. It actually gave me the time to rethink and reshape my life. It has taught me that actually the cause of freedom is really one thing that we shouldn’t compromise or relent. It’s worth giving our lives for, to make sure that journalists across the world are really having the freedom to do whatever they need to do.
INSKEEP: In what way have you reshaped your life?
ELSHAMY: It has made me someone with hope, someone who has changed for the better.
INSKEEP: Abdullah Elshamy, thank you very much.
ELSHAMY: Thank you very much, Steve.
INSKEEP: He’s an Al Jazeera journalist who spent 10 months in prison. When he was finally freed he went for a meal, a signature dish of Egypt – pigeon. It’s NPR News.
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