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February 04, 2014

American Recounts Arrest in Egypt

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post.

Jeremy Hodge, a 25-year old-American from Los Angeles was, until a few weeks ago, working as a translator in Cairo. Everything changed on the evening of January 22, when Hodge and his roommates, Nizar Manek, a British journalist, and Hossam el Meneai, an Egyptian documentary filmmaker, were questioned by Egyptian interrogators. They wound up suspected of "spreading false information to threaten Egyptian national security," a catchall charge frequently used by the military-backed government to target dissidents.

Hodge recounted his ordeal to Human Rights First: "Some youngish security guys came and asked us questions, nothing very difficult, we thought it was routine. They left and about 15 minutes later we also left - Hossam went to meet some friends in Zamalek and I was going out. A large group of men on the street in plain clothes, but obviously security guys, followed me and took me back to the apartment. They started questioning me and Nizar but much more aggressively. I was translating for Nizar because his Arabic isn't good - when he went to make the policemen tea he put out on Facebook that we were being interrogated in our apartment. Hossam read the Facebook update and immediately came home to see what was happening."

El Meneai and Hodge were taken into custody. Before his phone was confiscated Jeremy texted people about what was happening, and got a call from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. They told him that he'd be held for a few hours and then released, and then they would check on him in the morning. But that isn't what happened.

Hodge said that for most of the next 36 hours he and el Meneai were handcuffed to a chair without any food and eventually put into adjoining cells, Hodge in the "political" cell and el Meneai in one for ordinary criminals. "I was much better off," Hodge recalled. "We had a shower and the other guys in the cell, about a dozen of them, weren't threatening. Hossam's conditions were worse and one policeman in particular beat him repeatedly over the following days. I saw a policeman threaten him with a gun."

They were taken together to the public prosecutor's office but it wasn't clear if Hodge was being formally charged with anything. Hodge was released after five days, and left the country soon after. But el Meneai is still in jail.

"Having foreign roommates and being a filmmaker, even about nonpolitical documentaries, is suspicious now," said Hodge. Hossam was making a film about Christianity in Egypt, and had an appointment to interview the Coptic Pope. "He wasn't spreading any false information about anything, let alone endangering Egypt's security. I saw what they did to him in jail, how he was stripped and beaten, and I worry what will happen to him. We don't know when he'll be released."

Since the military-backed government ousted the elected civilian president Morsi in a coup in July, journalists and film makers have become particular targets. TV channels have been shut down and dozens of journalists arrested. Human Rights First released a report in last year detailing a crackdown on media under the Morsi government, but the new government has also targeted dissidents, or those it thinks might dissent.

Despite claims that it is moving towards democracy, and a new constitution that includes provisions protecting the freedom of expression, the government is increasingly repressive. Few media outlets are left to criticize the government, and academics, film makers, and bloggers are being arrested under the notorious "spreading false information" charge.

The U.S. government has lost respect among Egyptians across the political spectrum because of its tepid, halting response to the political turmoil of recent years. It should, at long last, speak out consistently for an inclusive, civilian government rooted in the rule of law and respect for international human rights standards. If it doesn't, the United States will continue to lose credibility and influence in a country it desperately needs to be stable and free.