Medea Benjamin, an American peace activist and co-founder of the grassroots peace and social justice movement CODEPINK, was detained 3 March while attempting to enter Egypt. Benjamin was on her way to Gaza to take part in a delegation of women peace activists.
Benjamin, who has visited Gaza many times before, has travelled through Egypt every time. This time, however, she was stopped at passport control. When her passport was scanned, she noticed a surprised look on the guard’s face.
For five hours she was held in a room and told periodically that “everything was okay” and that she would be released “in ten minutes”.
She was then taken to see someone that was referred to as “the big boss”, who never told Benjamin his name. When she said she was trying to go to Gaza, he told her “we can keep you as long as we want”. The “big boss” would not clarify why she was being held or if she was being charged with an offense. “It will be very bad for you,” she was told.
After meeting with the security official, she was moved to a cell for women. For eight hours she was trapped, “totally clueless” as to the reasons for her detainment.
Although she did not have access to her luggage, guards let her have her backpack in the holding cell. From there she tweeted about her detainment. “Freezing in Cairo cell. Guards call me ‘American’—American, do this, American do that,” she wrote. Eventually five plainclothes policemen came into the cell and told her, “American, come with us.”
She managed to reach the American Embassy as the men entered the room. Officials told her they would be at the airport in ten minutes and could provide assistance. “Please give me 10 minutes, please,” she told men. The other women in the cell begged her not to go with them.
According to Benjamin, the men then grabbed her and pulled her out of the cell. “They threw me down, but a knee on my back, and put two pairs of handcuffs on.” She says they pulled so hard on her arms that her shoulder was dislocated. The handcuffs were so tight that her wrists started bleeding.
“It was like I was a terrorist”, Benjamin said.
The men proceeded to “pull” her to an airplane by her injured arm. “I was howling all the way through the airport,” she said. “I need a doctor,” she told the men.
When Benjamin arrived at the gate for a flight to Istanbul, she told the attendants that she could not possibly fly in her condition, handcuffed with a dislocated shoulder. Eventually an ambulance was called to the tarmac, and three women nurses attended to her injuries. She was given a painkiller, but the nurses had never fixed a dislocated shoulder and were unwilling to attempt the procedure.
As the nurses were leaving, Benjamin said “I was so scared I grabbed onto the doctors and said ‘please don’t go’”.
Finally, she said, she boarded the plane. Two of the men who had brought her from her cell and injured her were sitting next to her during the flight. “I was moaning and screaming [in pain],” she said. One of the men allegedly took her scarf and shoved it in her mouth to silence her.
Her pain was so severe that finally the flight attendants called for a doctor to help set her shoulder.
Benjamin arrived in Istanbul on Tuesday and received medical attention at a hospital before she planned to fly back to the United States.
Although officials at the American Embassy never arrived to the airport and never met with Benjamin, the press attaché Mofid Deak said that “the embassy was aware of the case and provided all consular services” to Benjamin. Deak claimed that the embassy was in touch with airport officials and concerned authorities, although Benjamin was never able to contact them directly.
Benjamin still does not know why she was on a no-fly list in Cairo. Although she was in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising, she had no involvement with the protests against ousted president Hosni Mubarak. When pressed for a reason, Benjamin suggested that it was due to her participation in a “Freedom March” in support of Palestinians that took place in Cairo in 2010.
“[CODEPINK] tried not to get involved [in Egyptian politics], but now I feel like it has been forced on me. My main concern is that if they can do this to a 100-pound, five-foot tall [American] woman, what are they doing to their own people?”
Two other activists, UK citizens Mairead Maguire and Anne Patterson, who were on their way to take part in the same delegation in Gaza, were detained and allegedly deported from Cairo International airport on Wednesday.
When reached for comment, Al Amir Othman, Senior Press Officer at the British Embassy in Cairo, said “We are aware that two British nationals were detained on 5 March in Egypt. We provided consular assistance.” The spokesperson for the embassy was unavailable when reached for comment regarding the extent of the consular assistance provided.
Maguire won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work in the peace process in Northern Ireland. She now works with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of female Nobel peace prize recipients that “seek to increase the power and visibility of women’s groups working for peace, justice and equality”.