CAIRO: Members of a group of activists arrested while en route to pay condolences to relatives of Coptic Christians murdered outside a church in Nagaa Hammadi on Jan. 6 say they are baffled by their treatment.
“We were shocked and amazed, Shahinaz Abdel-Salam, one of the group of 18 activists released on Saturday afternoon, told Daily News Egypt.
Abdel-Salam explained that the group of bloggers and activists were arrested at the Nagaa Hammadi train station, where they had arrived from Cairo.
The bloggers and activists say that one of the group was told by a district attorney during public prosecution office investigations that a police officer had drawn up an arrest warrant for six of the group members -Wael Abbas, Israa Abdel Fattah, Mostafa El-Naggar and Abdel-Salam herself – on the evening they were due to travel.
“The officer was told however that the arrest order could only be carried out while we were in the act [of traveling to Nagaa Hammadi], Abdel-Salam explained.
One of the group, a French national, Nadia Zinai, who does not speak Arabic was asked about her full name, which in Egyptian bureaucracy consists of three names.
“I tried to explain to the police officer that in France they have a different system, they only have two names, but he wouldn’t be persuaded, Abdel-Salam said.
“He ended up writing her name, Nadia Zinai, plus the first word he found listed after her name in her passport – ‘marron,’ which is French for brown and which is her eye color, [information included in French passports].
The group was taken from Nagaa Hammadi train station to Qena, an hour away, in a police truck. Their mobiles and ID cards were subsequently confiscated, though some of the girls in the group were able to conceal a camera and a mobile phone in their clothing, which they used to photograph the detention cell they were held in a Qena police station.
Abdel-Salam says that the male and female members of the group were separated and kept in two “disgusting, dirty cells. They were not allowed to telephone anyone, and were given one meal throughout the day of bread, cheese and halva.
“Nobody told us anything about what was going on, so at 2 pm the female members of the group decided to go on hunger strike, Abdel-Salam says.
When he went to the Qena public prosecution office to inquire, Osama Ghazaly Harb (one of the founders of the Democratic Front Party), who was part of a group who traveled to Nagaa Hammadi the same day as the group of bloggers were attempting to do so, was falsely told that the group was not there.
“Harb refused to leave the public prosecution office until we appeared, Abdel-Salam says.
The group was eventually brought before the public prosecution office the same evening, in groups of three, and informed that they may face charges of “inciting sectarian strife and taking part in an illegal gathering of more than five people.
“The district attorney was smiling as he read out the charges because they were so ridiculous. One of the group, Marianne Nagy, asked how they could be intending to incite sectarian strife when the group is composed of both Muslims and Christians, Abdel-Salam said.
According to Abdel-Salam, the police report, written by police officer Ahmed Hegazy, alleged that the group had chanted slogans including, “We don’t want state security investigations, we don’t want their minister from 8 am to 11 am in Nagaa Hammadi train station.
Zinai was interrogated on her own. Abdel-Salam says that she was questioned in Arabic with an interpreter who “barely spoke French to assist her.
At the end of the questioning she was prevailed on to sign a document in Arabic – whose contents she could not read – but refused.
At the conclusion of public prosecution office questioning the female members of the group refused to return to the Qena police station, demanding that they be held somewhere else. They were taken to a room in a Qena hospital which, while it was unsanitary, Abdel-Salam says was “marginally better than the police cell.
The public prosecution office issued a release order for the group at around noon on Saturday. They were eventually on the road for the 10-hour drive back to Cairo, in two microbuses, later that afternoon.
A police escort drove behind them until they reached the governorate of Sohag.
Both Abdel-Salam and Abbas say they are baffled by their treatment.
Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas suggested possible explanations for their arrests, linking it to the visits by the National Democratic Party delegation. “They [NDP] were worried about their image, they didn’t want anyone to be competing with them, he said.
“Maybe they also didn’t want any commotion during the NDP’s visit, although I believe our visit would’ve been to their advantage, but they are stupid, he added.
There has been speculation that the police was attempting to stop the activists reaching bereaved relatives of those killed in the drive-by shooting, which took place on the evening of Jan. 6 outside the Mar Yohanna church, approximately an hour after the church’s congregation had finished celebrating a Coptic Christmas mass.
The killings are widely viewed as a sectarian incident and the Egyptian authorities – extremely sensitive about Egypt’s sectarian issues, particularly in Egypt’s south where a large Christian minority lives – has responded with lightning speed to it, arresting and charging three men with the crime in less than two weeks following it.
The speed of the response to the crime has led to some observers to suggest that the authorities are trying to contain the affair by any means.
Criticism of the authorities’ reaction to the crime has been intensified by allegations that Nagaa Hammadi police knew about threats against Nagaa Hammadi’s Christian community in advance of the incident.
Abbas suggested that the police’s aim might have been to “terrorize the activists.
Abdel-Salam says that the incident has had the opposite effect, and that she and other members of the group are “now more determined to engage in protest action against the Egyptian regime.
“One of the members of the group was young, and wasn’t involved in political activity at all, Abdel-Salam said.
“She was only going to Nagaa Hammadi to pay condolences to the families. She told me though that this experience has made her want to ‘join any political party’. They [the government] politicize the non-political.