Out on Bail, Al-Jazeera Journalist Mohammed Fahmy Speaks from Cairo

He describes the circumstances of his arrest and imprisonment.

In December 2013, Al-Jazeera English Bureau Chief Mohammed Fahmy was arrested in Cairo alongside colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed on charges of supporting the banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Greste, Mohamed, and Fahmy, a dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, were imprisoned, subjected to widely derided legal proceedings and sentenced to seven years in jail.  

After a prolonged international outcry, Greste, an Austrialian citizen, was recently repatriated back to Australia. Fahmy and Mohamed were released from prison last week on bail, pending a retrial scheduled for next week.

Speaking to The Intercept Wednesday from Cairo, Fahmy described the circumstances of his arrest in late 2013, and his subsequent imprisonment. “When they first came to arrest us, I was at the Marriott Hotel and someone rang the bell of our suite. There was a man at the door dressed as a waiter, but he was actually a police officer.”

Upon opening the door, a number of police officers barged in and began ransacking his room.

“They were acting very intense, searching for spy cameras. There were also people with video cameras, people taking photos,” Fahmy said. “They wanted to make a big deal of this for the public, to say that they’d caught a ‘Muslim Brotherhood cell.’ They even made me count money while they filmed me doing that on camera. It was really weird.”

During his imprisonment, Fahmy was held in the notorious Tora Prison in Cairo, known locally as “Scorpion Prison.”

“The first month in jail was hell, because me and Baher were kept in the terrorist wing of the prison, and we were imprisoned exclusively alongside jihadists,” he said, describing the conditions.

Fahmy was held at first in solitary confinement, in a cell infested with insects and devoid of sunlight, which he described as “freezing cold.” The only time he was allowed out was for interrogations and when he was being transported. Whenever he was taken out of the cell, he would also be shackled to other prisoners in the wing — all of whom, with the exception of himself and Baher Mohammed, he said, were jihadists.

“We would be thrown in the transfer trucks with the jihadists, who would all start chanting their slogans like ‘Fuck the police,’ or yelling something about their organizations,” Fahmy said. “We had people who had been fighting in Libya, in Syria in there with us. There were people who were actually pledging allegiance to Islamic State inside the prison. It was tough, but I tried to make the best of it as a journalist and talk to them, even try to interview them.”

After the first month, Fahmy was transferred to a new section of the prison where he shared a cell with Greste and Baher. The other prisoners in this cellblock were all senior leaders in the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi. “We were moved to an area called ‘the shoebox.’ There were about 15 other people in adjacent cells. Our own cell was small. [Baher and Greste] had a bunk and I had a separate bed. We only got one hour outside our cell every day, but because we were together, we were really able to support each other.”

Along with his imprisoned colleagues, Fahmy said he ran an improvised nightly “radio show” by yelling through the bars of his cell to other prisoners in the same block. “Every night we did something called ‘The Al-Jazeera Live Show,’ like a news program. We’d take it really seriously and spend the whole day planning it. We talked about politics, had interviews, recited poetry. We were interviewing the other inmates from their cells, because these were Morsi’s former ministers imprisoned all around us.”

At one point the show went “off air” for three days after officers in charge of the cellblock ordered them to stop. “We stopped, but the Brotherhood guys were really defiant and said, ‘We’ll do the show.’ They didn’t do a very good job, but they kept it going, and a few days later we resumed doing it, too.”

Fahmy said that the interrogations during his stay in prison did not involve any physical coercion, and that he did not experience abuse. However, a long-standing physical injury to his arm was exacerbated over the course of his imprisonment, and he was denied medical treatment.

“At the time I was arrested, I had a broken humerus bone. My arm was in a sling. I kept asking for an X-ray and they kept delaying. It has become a permanent disability now, because of medical negligence.”

During his imprisonment, Fahmy had limited access to news of the outside world, but was able to get some clue about media coverage of his plight from messages smuggled into the prison by his fiance, who concealed them in his meals.

“She used to smuggle in print-outs from the Internet, and hide them in the fish and rice. I really looked forward to them, because this was the only way I could develop some idea of what was happening outside jail.”

Despite these small glimpses of the outside world, Fahmy said he did not realize the scale of worldwide support and attention his plight was receiving, until now. “I still can’t grasp the scale of the support; I can’t believe it.”

For the time being, Fahmy said he is enjoying his “semi-freedom,” though he has to check in with the police every day and is facing a retrial that could potentially result in him being sent back to jail. As a dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, he excoriated the Canadian government for allowing him to languish in prison while it lavished support and funding upon the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Fahmy also recently gave up his Egyptian citizenship, something he described as “very hard decision,” made only after he was advised that it was the only way he’d be released.

Despite taking this step, Fahmy’s freedom is still not guaranteed. Out on bail for now, he faces the prospect of being sentenced to even more prison time pending the outcome of his retrial.

“When we were first arrested, none of us ever thought this would go on as long as it has, or become as serious as it has,” he said, adding that he believes his case has become a political flashpoint in the ongoing proxy war between regional governments in Egypt and Qatar. 

“Although we’re out on bail, this is not even close to being over. We’re still facing very serious potential consequences,” Fahmy said. “The media and the public are our only line of defense.”

Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

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