Courtesy Hossam Meneai

Personal Essay: Fighting a wrongful arrest and imprisonment in Egypt

An Egyptian documentary filmmaker discusses his time in jail after the release of his American co-defendant

On the morning of Jan. 26, 2014, two guards brought me out of my detainment cell in Cairo’s Dokki police station, loaded me onto a bus and took me to the North Giza courthouse in the city’s Agouza district. I was quickly ushered before a judge, who asked that I explain my case. I told him I was a filmmaker who worked with international news outlets and that police found videos on my laptop taken during various points during the Jan. 25 revolution. As a consequence, I was officially being charged with “spreading false news that threatens Egypt’s national security.” Seemingly uninterested, the judge banged his gavel and ruled that my time in detention be extended another 15 days.

The “trial” over, I was brought back to the police station, where I had been detained since Jan. 22. I had been arrested with my flatmate, Jeremy Hodge, an American journalist and Arabic-language translator. Jeremy had been released earlier that day. I had not yet spoken to my family or had any contact with the outside world. However, news of our detention had made it into the media, and I received my first visit later that night from Ahmed Hassan, a representative of the United Group Law Center, a legal firm run by Negad al-Borai, a prominent Egyptian attorney. 

After introducing himself, Hassan gave me two cans of tuna fish and four packs of cigarettes. In Egyptian jails, at least from my experience at the Dokki police station, food, blankets, pillows and changes of clothes are not provided to inmates, regardless of the duration of their stay. Friends and relatives are expected to provide prisoners with these amenities when they visit. Until that moment, I had been surviving solely off the goodwill of other prisoners, who allowed us to share their food. Having cigarettes would allow me to pay back some of the debt Jeremy and I had accumulated.

I thanked him and asked for blankets, warm clothes and food. “I also want to be represented by a big-time lawyer,” I told Hassan, “someone who has influence within the system.”

“No problem,” he said. “I’ll come visit you again tomorrow. I can bring you everything then.”

I also asked him to collect money from my friends and, if possible, bring me 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($143). “I can use that to get guards to bring us food from the outside or in case I need to bribe someone for any other reason if need be.”

“Sure, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Hassan said. I never saw or heard from him again.

Later, I learned that my other flatmate, British journalist Nizar Manek, who had witnessed our arrest, had been working to have us released. In fact, in the first several days of my detention, money, clothes and food, including a pizza, had been brought to Dokki for me by friends. But none of it ever reached my cell and most likely had been intercepted, confiscated and consumed by police. Nizar also found out that although Hassan did relay my requests, he had asked my friends to collect 2,000 pounds, for reasons that remain unknown.  

After Hassan left, I was approached by an officer named Ahmed Eihab. He, like many others at the station, took issue with the fact that I had been born in Egypt’s North Sinai governorate, from which a number of armed Islamist movements have recently launched attacks against the state. He shook me and shouted, “What did you tell the judge today?!”

“Just about the case and my work as a filmmaker,” I replied.

He then punched me in the face and asked if I had told the judge about any of the beatings he had given to me over the past week. 

“No,” I said.

“Why not?!” he yelled, punching me again.

“Because the details of the case are more important,” I said.

This further angered Eihab, who then kicked, punched and struck me with his baton, as he often had before, insinuating all the while that I was a spy, accusations I always rejected.

“I’m going to fuck you up like this for as long as you’re here,” he said. This routine, late at night, continued for the next six days.

It’s easy to lose track of time while in jail. Roughly four or five days after that exchange, I was visited by an officer who worked at a police station in Imbaba, a neighborhood located in Egypt’s Northwest Giza Governorate. As luck would have it, we were distant in-laws; his cousin was married to my uncle’s daughter. My uncle had been pressuring him to visit me and allow me to make a phone call.

Immediately he led me out of my cell into another room and allowed me to call my mother. The call lasted five minutes. I quickly updated her on what had happened, and she promised to visit me soon, adding that my uncle would try to see me the next day to bring me provisions.

Because of shortages, prisoners would be stripped down to their underwear and forced to stand (and sleep) in a space of roughly 12 by 12 inches in a group cell until another inmate is released and a uniform is made available.

The following day I learned that I, along with seven other criminal offenders, would be transferred to Tora, an infamous, maximum-security prison south of Cairo, in the Helwan governorate, for further questioning. Before being transferred, I spoke with one of my cellmates, who had already served a 20-year sentence in Tora and was awaiting his release. 

He explained that new arrivals there were not allowed into the general population until they received one of the white uniforms worn by inmates in Egypt’s jails. Because of shortages, prisoners such as myself who would have arrived without the uniforms, would be stripped down to their underwear and forced to stand (and sleep) in a space of roughly 12 inches by 12 inches in a group cell until another inmate is released and a uniform is made available. New arrivals are then subject to mass beatings by prison guards using sticks, electrical wires and other items of torture.

He also mentioned that one of the guards responsible for transferring inmates from the Dokki station to Tora, ‘Am Gamal, had a reputation for taking bribes.

On the way to Tora, I was able to identify ‘Am Gamal when other guards called his name while we were being loaded onto the bus.

“Sir, I’m expecting a visit tonight from my uncle back in Dokki,” I told him. He nodded.

“He’s supposed to bring me money and food. … but how am I supposed to receive them from him if I’m in Tora?”

For a mere 100 pounds ($14.30) and the price of a mobile sim card (which he would purchase and bring to me while in jail), Am’ Gamal agreed to tear up the papers authorizing my prison transfer and take me back to Dokki, on the pretext that I had an upcoming court date in Giza. 

Members of Egyptian security forces stand guard outside one of the gates of the Tora prison where Hossam was brought from Dokki police station.
Gianluigi Guernica / AFP / Getty Images

When we arrived at Tora, the other seven inmates were escorted off the bus and taken into the prison, while I was ordered to sit and wait. I sat there for five hours, after which ‘Am Gamal returned and took me back to Dokki, as promised.

My uncle didn’t come until the next day but this didn’t matter, as ‘Am Gamal never returned to collect his debt.

That night, Ahmed Eihab came into our cell again. This time, he ignored me and avoided making eye contact. I stared at him and our eyes locked for a split second before he nervously looked away. By this point, 11 days had passed since Jeremy and I had been arrested, and it had been nearly a week since he had been released. I figured that stories about us must have gotten out, about the arrest and subsequent maltreatment. 

One man had been arrested after filming a street protest with his cell phone. Two others had been caught holding cans of Pepsi and vinegar, which can counteract the effects of tear gas. Another was arrested during a protest for carrying a Quran.

On Friday, February 7, one day before I was due to appear in court, I was taken from my cell, along with two political prisoners who had been held in a separate cell, and loaded onto a bus. 

“Where are we going?” I asked the one of the guards.

“Shut the fuck up,” he replied.

“I have a court date tomorrow.”

“I know,” he said. “You’ll see the prosecutor at the prison. New policy.”

“Which prison?” I asked.

“You’ll know when you get there,” 

The bus drove down the Cairo-Alexandria desert freeway. One of the other inmates was Ahmed Alaiba, an Egyptian who worked in the American embassy and had been charged with “communicating with an outlawed group” — i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood. After about an hour, we arrived at the 10.5 Kilometer Central Security Prison Complex.

We entered the facility and were placed in a large cell that held about 45 inmates. I sat down and looked at the faces around me. To my right were a number of men with long beards, some of whom were smiling at me, and to my left sat a group of young men who had the look of activists. I figured I had been placed in a cell with political prisoners.

Most of the men had been arrested several weeks before, on the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution, some earlier. One young man had been arrested after filming a street protest with his cell phone. Two others had been caught holding cans of Pepsi and vinegar, which, when poured into one’s eyes, can counteract the effects of tear gas. Another man was arrested during a protest for carrying a Quran. Another man had worn a shirt that read, “I Was the One Who Called for Peace,” the title of a popular protest song that came out in early 2013. 

After several hours, I was taken to see the prison doctor. He asked if I was suffering from any injuries. I considered telling him about the pain and bruising on my left leg, the result of constant beatings I received by Officer Eihab, but decided not to. Speaking of the beatings might draw the attention of the guards at this new facility, who at the moment knew nothing about me. 

The next morning, on my court date, I woke up and was taken with 24 other inmates to see the prison prosecutor, Sherrif al-Zind. Upon arriving at his office, we waited in a hallway while 10 lawyers representing various inmates went in  to plead their case. They left five minutes later, appearing defeated and upset. The prosecutor had not let any of them speak.

I was then ushered into the prosecutor’s office with the rest of the inmates. He began by doing a roll call, asking at the end if anyone had not heard their names mentioned. I raised my hand.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

 “Hossam Eddin Suleiman Ahmed Meneai,” I responded.

“You’re the one from Al-Arish?”

“Yes sir.”

“Take him outside!” he yelled. “Your case is being handled by a different prosecutor.”

I began to panic. I assumed my case was being heard that day in North Giza and that I had been purposely transferred to sabotage my chances for release and get my detention renewed for 15 days.

We were taken back to our cells. Several hours later, a guard whom I recognized from Dokki arrived and we got on a bus headed back to Cairo. Anxious, I asked him for news regarding my case.

“You were found innocent,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it.

Nineteen days after my arrest, I was apparently free to go. When we arrived at the police station, I asked Ahmed Ahmar Sheffayeh, a ranking officer, if this was true.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but the prosecutor wants to see you tomorrow.”

Although I was free to go, we still had to bribe two dozen or so bailiffs and police officers loitering outside the courtroom in order to ensure that they would implement the judge’s orders and release me in a timely fashion.

When I arrived in court, I saw my mother and my sister’s husband, Selim, who works as an attorney in our hometown of Al-Arish, but my own lawyers were running late. I was able to postpone my case in order to give them more time. After 10 minutes, the judge demanded to see me. I entered the courtroom, bringing Selim, who, after hastily being provided a white court robe by the bailiffs, served as my lawyer. 

Selim pointed out a number of flaws in the police report, for instance that my address had been recorded, as 10 Meidan Misaha St., as opposed to 12 Meidan Misaha St. The judge also appeared frustrated with the sloppiness of the prosecution’s case, constantly muttering under his breath while he read the report. “What is this?” he said, looking up from the documents. “Release him unless he’s been charged in other cases. Next.”

I was overjoyed.

Although I was free to go, we still had to bribe two dozen or so bailiffs and police officers loitering outside the courtroom in order to ensure that they would implement the judge’s orders and release me in a timely fashion.

Upon exiting, we were approached by an officer who smiled and said, “A treat for us?” My mother and Selim had come prepared and doled out 3,000 pounds in 100- and 200-pound bills to the law-enforcement employees who had been waiting outside.

I was taken back to Dokki one last time and sat in my cell for three hours before finally being led into the office of one of the police investigators. I was there for nearly an hour, but the three officers didn’t attend to my paperwork or even look at me. I realized that another bribe was in order.

I cleared my throat and said, “If there’s anything you need, I can get it for you, no problem,” pulling the last 200 pounds I had out of my pocket.

They all looked up. One said, “There’s three of us.”

“My friends will be waiting for me outside of the station.” I said. “They’ll bring you another 100 pounds when I get out.”

They agreed and quickly signed off on my paperwork.

I was finally released. Upon walking out the station, I found my mother, Selim and several of my closest friends waiting for me. We paid the remaining 100 pounds and left. 

After nineteen days in jail, Hossam was finally released
Courtesy Hossam Meneai

After getting released, I wrote a short movie script entitled “Assassination,” in which a young revolutionary has a conversation with a police officer. The officer tells the revolutionary, “The Egyptians are a beautiful people that the whole world is bedazzled by. Your voices rang out, we were overthrown, and the world hoisted you up on its shoulders. Then, we returned, our voices rang out, and we too were hoisted up on its shoulders. Aren’t the Egyptians truly a loud and boisterous people? But now that your voices have been silenced, as far as we’re concerned you and your kind are no longer of the Egyptian people.” This fictional speech feels even truer to me now. The voices of the Jan. 25 revolution have been targeted and silenced, both physically and psychologically, so that they are neither seen nor heard anymore. 

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