CAIRO: Mohamed Salah Marei is a 23-year-old student in his fourth year of veterinary science at Mansoura University who doesn’t really want to be a vet.
“I wanted to study political science, but my father was determined that there should be at least one person in the family able to call himself doctor.
Marei will be repeating the last university year in the coming academic year: In June, when he should have been taking his exams, he was being held in political detention in Alexandria’s Borg El-Arab Prison.
His crime was working as an interpreter for American journalist James Buck in Mahalla last April.
On April 6 and 7, violent clashes broke out between demonstrators protesting increasing food prices and security bodies, who rights groupsaccuse of using heavy-handed policing methods.
Hundreds of people were arrested over the course of the two days and held in Mahalla’s police stations.
Relatives of the detainees had gathered in the square in front of the First Mahalla Police Station to enquire about their missing loved ones on Thursday April 10. Buck was photographing and interviewing them, with Marei’s help.
“I was on one side of the square interviewing people and James was on the other taking photos and recording what people were saying, Marei told Daily News Egypt.
“Suddenly I saw James run and people trying to protect him from [state security officers]. I stopped a taxi and told James to get in and told the driver, ‘go, go!’
They were pursued by the state security officers, who eventually cut off the taxi.
“I was so calm, James was so frightened and angry. I told him ‘don’t worry, we didn’t do anything wrong, we’ll go in and get out right away.’ I really did believe that this would happen.
“The officers told the taxi driver to go to the police station. One of the officers sat beside us on the way there.
In his tireless campaigning for his release, Buck has frequently paid tribute to Marei’s strength and equanimity during the ordeal.
“[Marei] is a kind man with a quiet, gentle voice who held my hand as we ran through the streets under police siege. When we got hit with tear gas, Mohamed negotiated safe houses for us to go in and wash our eyes. .When a passing train a few feet away was hit with rocks and I cowered in fear, he covered my body with his, Buck wrote in an op-ed published in the Harvard Crimson in June.
Marei and Buck were held inside the First Mahalla Police Station where they were searched and interrogated before being charged.
“They made a report saying that we’re against the government and that we encouraged the people in Mahalla to destroy things, and other charges, said Marei.
A district attorney in the Mahalla public prosecution office threw out the charges – “when he read the report he called another prosecutor and they laughed Marei said – and the two men were released.
“When we approached the main door of the building there were a lot of people from state security waiting for us.
“They said ‘James can go but we need you, Mohamed, we need to finish the release procedures.’
“We tried to escape, to go back inside, but they took us back to the police station.
Nine hours after they were originally arrested the pair were again detained at 3 am – illegally, in violation of the public prosecution office’s release order. During his detention, Buck managed to notify his network of contacts of his arrest using the Twitter messaging service, and a lawyer sent by his university arrived at 9 am the next day.
He told Buck he could take him, but not Marei. Buck refused to leave without Marei and stayed with him until the two were separated and Buck was released in the early evening.
Unknown to Buck – and to anyone – Marei was taken from the police station to the Mahalla State Security office, where his nightmare began.
“Just as I went in through the door someone behind me lifted me by my belt very hard. He then blindfolded me, and tied my hands behind my back, took my wallet and my mobile and insulted me repeatedly.
“They took me to the second floor of the building and this time I was very afraid. They told me to sit on the ground. I heard a lot of people screaming, they were being electrocuted – I could hear the sound of the machine,”A voice near my ear said ‘put him in the oven’ and after that sit him on the pole [a reference to sodomy]. I felt like I had died. Someone kicked me while I was on the ground.
“I spent an hour in the room before they took me to an officer. I could hardly walk because I was so scared.
“Before I went in [his office] voices said ‘there is electricity on the ground, jump you son of a.or you’ll be electrocuted.’ I jumped, but there was nothing.
“They insulted me again, ‘You traitor, you work with foreigners.You’re going to die from electric shocks.’
Marei was interrogated about his political views, which television programs he watches, and about his relationship with Buck.
He was also questioned about all the contacts stored in his mobile phone and forced to repeat the same answers again, after 40 hours without sleep.
“I was taken back outside and started coughing and couldn’t breathe.
“I took off my blindfold and someone kicked my leg. Then he handcuffed my hand really tight, so tight that I lost feeling in it. They took me to a cell downstairs.
“I begged him to loosen the handcuff slightly, and he did. There was no blanket. I was on my own. The floor was rough and I was still handcuffed behind my back. I couldn’t sleep.
Marei says that he was kept in solitary confinement, blindfolded and handcuffed, for 19 days, permitted to use a toilet once a day for three minutes.
With obvious embarrassment, whispering, and barely able to form the words, he told Daily News Egypt that guards burst into his cell one night while he was asleep. He was so frightened that he urinated involuntarily. He was not given a change of clothes.
During this time his family – who had gone to the state security office in search of their missing son – were told that he was not being held there.
“They told me that ‘you’re going to die here and we’ll bury you in this cell’. I believed them.
Marei was issued with a detention order – an administrative decree issued under the emergency law which critics say is abused in order to detain political opponents and others – and taken to Borg El-Arab Prison.
Marei launched various hunger strikes inside the prison: in protest at his being held in the criminals rather than political detainees section; at being denied the right to sit his university exams (he was eventually transferred to Mansoura Prison to sit the exams, but some time after exams had already started, as a result of which he failed the university year) and in protest at his being held without charge.
Ninety days after his arrest, Marei was released on July 8, with a warning not to blog – he has a blog on which he has posted only two posts – and to stay away from political activity.
Forty-two detainees arrested during the Mahalla events are not so lucky.
Part of a group of 49 (six are on the run) these are ordinary, poor and forgotten people from Mahalla who face prison sentences of between seven and 10 years.
Lawyers claim that many of them have been tortured, and that the group – abandoned by the media and almost all rights groups – are the scapegoats being used by the government to give credence to its claims that the events of Mahalla were an outbreak of mob-led criminal violence, rather than an expression of social and economic despair.