An EIPR Researcher Tells the Story of His Journey from Military Police to General Intelligence to Al-Waely Police Department

28 July 2011

Amr Gharbeia: I was kidnapped by unidentified people under the pretext I was a spy, and threatened with a knife as I was taken to different security agencies

On the evening of the 23rd of July, a group of people abducted Amr Gharbeia, Technology and Freedoms Program Officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), against the backdrop of the bloody battle of Abbassiya which took place on the evening of the 23rd July. The abductors decided he was a member of the April 6th Movement as well as being a spy, and that they had to take him to the military police.

It all began when Amr and a number of his colleagues were participating in the march heading from Tahrir Square to the Military Council headquarters, which was intercepted violently in Abbassiya Square by people dressed in civilian clothing – most of them reckoned to be hired from outside the area. Security forces fired tear gas canisters, while the army maintained their negative neutrality, according to eyewitness reports.

The smear campaign against Amr reached its nadir in his abduction and subsequent journey, in which he was taken from the headquarters of the military police and military investigations, to the general intelligence agency, to the al-Amiriyah police station, and then to the al-Waely police station in Abbassiya, in a series of ironic twists. During his journey, which lasted until five in the morning, Amr was subjected to sustained attacks. These included robbery of his money and restraint by handcuffs, without the key, by one of those who volunteered to help deliver the 'spy' to the relevant authorities.

For the eight hours during which Amr disappeared, from 9pm on the evening of Saturday 23rd July until the early hours of the following morning, we were unable to reach him. Dozens of solidarity appeals were launched by his friends and colleagues via the internet, searching for an activist with a long history of fighting torture and achievements in human rights advocacy. A group of individuals responded to these frantic attempts by agitating on Facebook and Twitter to undermine Amr; there was even a Facebook group created calling for the 'execution of Amr Gharbeia.'

In this dialogue, Amr Gharbeia, Technology and Freedoms Program Officer at the EIPR, recounts the details of his abduction from in front of Demerdash metro station until his arrival back home the next morning.

How did it begin, and what happened exactly?

At around 8.30pm, I was with a group of colleagues, heading towards Demerdash metro station near Abbassiya Square. My attention was caught by the sight of a group of people who had stopped a young man I know from the demonstrators at Tahrir Square, and who were asking him for his identity card. I headed towards them, hoping to help the young man. They rapidly moved from interrogating the young man to seizing hold of me, and assaulting me with a number of repeated accusations: 'He's from April 6th! He's a spy!'

How did you react to this sudden shift in attitude?

I tried to remain calm, and told them that I am not a member of the April 6th Movement, but I was pulled in all directions and my clothes were torn. Blows rained down on me from all sides; I could not tell where they were coming from amongst the crowd which surrounded me and whose intensity varied from moment to moment. My colleagues could not completely extricate me from out of their hands. I left my personal bag with Alia al-Husseini, who was with me and others on the march, after having first taken out a t-shirt which I wore instead of my torn clothes. My detention then became a reality which I would have to deal with from then on, but it included a degree of resistance from me, which softened the attacks, even just a little.

And where did your captors take you?

As I said, their numbers changed from minute to minute. However there were three people (Hassan Ghandour, Karim Ali, and another) who considered me their personal catch, and held on to me due to their 'special knowledge' of the situation until they decided to take me to the nearest military police station. Someone volunteered to take me, and so I was taken inside his unmarked white car to the police checkpoint. In the back seat, where I was sat next to Hassan, he continuously threatened me with a pocket knife which folded out from a wooden handle, and would occasionally jab me with it. Hassan was convinced that I was a spy, as he had seen a picture of me on Facebook confirming this. Then a young man stopped the car and decided to ride with us. He declared very courageously that he was from April 6th, which gave me a rush of hope that I would not disappear at the hands of this group of men. However, Hassan, his knife, and his continuous threats frightened the young man, who left the car shortly afterwards and disappeared.

What was the nature of the treatment meted out to you by Hassan and his companions along the way, and how were you able to handle it?

I was poked and hit, and resisted by talking to them, perhaps hoping to prolong the moments when they were preoccupied with our coversation. However, I did not let them see my identity card, nor did I let them use or examine my mobile phone, which I still had on me although I could not access it. Because of the heavy traffic, Hassan and his companions decided to get out of the car and proceed on foot towards the nearest military police checkpoint, which was located near a bridge I cannot identify precisely at the moment. A citizen appeared carrying handcuffs and tried to restrain my hands behind my back; I refused strongly, started pushing him and resisting him with force. This created a stalemate which held him off for a little while. The episode ended with only one of my hands being tied with the handcuffs, and then the citizen disappeared.

Until you came to the military police checkpoint?

Yes, and then my personal belongings were unpacked in front of a military police officer and his soldiers: a series of flash memory keys, my identity card, my bank card, 253LE, my mobile phone and charger. Then the military police major decided that espionage was outside the scope of his unit's work and it would be better to take me to military investigations.

What happened after that?

A soldier from the military police took us (Hassan and his companions were still on the scene) to military investigations on Wali Al-Ahd Street. The people standing at the gate only bothered to check my nationality (for military sites do not permit foreigners to enter). In the meantime, people were taking pictures of me on their mobile phones as the 'big catch'. However the military investigations refused to receive me; it seemed to me that no authority wanted me. This was an important turning point in how I handled the scenario, for it seemed as though I would be stuck with Hassan and his companions until some unidentified breaking point.

What happened after the military investigators refused to take you, and it became apparent that you were not the 'spy' that the authorities were – presumably – turning the world upside down trying to find?

As I said, they treated me as though I was a 'catch', and along the way Hassan regaled me with his political opinions on the region, and the nature of what America and Israel and Hizbullah were doing. They were convinced that I was a spy, given that one of them claimed there was a picture of me with Ilan Grapel, the Israeli suspected of spying on Egypt. This image, which is erroneous and shows someone else, has received wide attention and popularity on the internet.

They then took me to the general intelligence headquarters in Kobri Al-Quba. We accumulated more people along the way who then separated from us, but not before one of them attacked me with a sharp object which caused an area of the skin below my neck to peel off.

What happened when you arrived at the general intelligence headquarters?

I was handed over and two intelligence officers between the ages of thirty and forty came out and took me to a room next to the gate. They asked me some questions in a polite and friendly manner, asking me about my work and background. I smiled and said I was a spy and they smiled in turn!

I told them I worked at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and asked them to remove the handcuffs with which a do-gooder had bound my hand, but then had disappeared, taking the key with him! I also asked to make a phone call, and received a promise of that and release from the handcuffs but did not get either of these. We continued to talk for about half an hour (it was by now past 11pm). They then told me that I did not mean anything to them, and that they were going to hand me over to the police who may decide to refer me to the military police and the military prosecutor. Then they said they do not have a direct channel of communication with the army.

Then a police patrol car arrived, at the request of intelligence, to take me and Hassan and his companions (who were still waiting for me in front of the intelligence building) to another entrance in the intelligence complex where I was investigated. I was then taken to the al-Amiryah police station, who refused to receive me on the grounds that the incident did not happen in its jurisdiction. They then took me to the al-Waely police station, who were made aware I was on my way. In the meantime I got to know some information about the three who had captured me and taken me from one security agency to another.

What happened inside the al-Waely police station?

I was received by the head of investigations, a man named Ayman Saleh, and an investigations officer working with him, and they said to me that they knew about my arrival from the Cairo security directorate. They also said that they had a directive to release me but only after making sure I was not on the wanted list for State Security or National Security, or involved in any other issues. He then called State Security and told them about the matter, who told him that they did not want me in any way.

We then had a friendly chat, and as they knew I was experienced in technology one of them told me he knew that you could make a 'really huge profit' in e-marketing. He also asked me to fix some file corruption in his computer, which I did.

I was in the al-Waely police station about two hours, from 3am to 5am, until the confirmation came that I was not wanted by State Security or for any other issue.

When the moment came for my release, my phone had stopped working, as my family had had it blocked so as to give a clue as to my whereabouts. My money (253LE) had disappeared - presumably my captors knew where it was! I took a taxi home and arrived at about 6am.

The EIPR filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor on Tuesday the 26th July, concerning the illegal detention of our colleague Amr at the hands of three people. The complaint, no. 9281/2011, contains details of how Amr Gharbeia was grabbed from amongst his colleagues outside Demerdash metro station on the evening of the 23rd July on the sidelines of the peaceful march that was intercepted in Abbassiya Square. On the same day, the Assistant Public Prosecutor, Counselor Adel al-Said, referred the complaint to the West Cairo Prosecutor. The day after the complaint was filed – the 27th July – Amr made a statement before Chief Prosecutor, Mr. Ahmed Said Habib, who in turn decided to send Amr to a forensic doctor to examine him and to complete his statement the following day.