Two Canadians held without charge inside one of Egypt’s most notorious prisons were released unexpectedly from custody early on Sunday morning.
The renowned film-maker John Greyson and emergency medic Tarek Loubani had been detained for over seven weeks after being arrested while observing protests in Cairo on 16 August. Like many of the protesters arrested that day, they were held on suspicion of murder and intention to kill. In a letter their lawyers later smuggled from prison, the pair said they had been beaten in custody, and were being held in an overcrowded, cockroach-infested cell.
Their release this weekend came as a surprise, coming shortly after Egyptian authorities ordered their detention for another 45 days. Officials had also recently implied the pair had been acting as foreign spies, a symptom of widespread nationalism and xenophobia that has spread across Egypt since the overthrow of ex-president Mohamed Morsi in July.
The news sparked jubilation in Canada, where the pair’s detainment had become a cause célèbre, with Alec Baldwin and Charlize Theron among 150,000 people who had signed a petition calling for their release.
“Christmas comes early this year!” tweeted Cecilia Greyson, John Greyson’s sister, who had led efforts to publicise the pair’s predicament. “Celebrating with penguin pajamas!”
Greyson is the director of several feature films, and a film professor at a Canadian university, while Loubani is an emergency room doctor. The pair were in Cairo en route to Gaza, where they planned to train and make a film about Gazan doctors.
Following their release, lawyers said, they were taken to a hotel in central Cairo.
The case shone a light on the poor conditions inside Egyptian prisons, and the often arbitrary nature of Egypt’s judicial system. Greyson and Loubani were among thousands arrested this summer and held without charge in Egypt.
During their detainment, the pair had said in a 600-word statement that they were “searched, caged, questioned, interrogated, videotaped with a ‘Syrian terrorist’, slapped, beaten, ridiculed, hot-boxed, refused phone calls, stripped, shaved bald, accused of being foreign mercenaries”.
The statement added: “They screamed ‘Canadian’ as they kicked and hit us. John had a precisely etched bootprint bruise on his back for a week.”
Greyson was among dozens of journalists and cameramen arrested or assaulted in Egypt this summer, as suspicion from Egyptian civilians and officials of foreigners – and in particular foreign media – peaked. Greyson and Loubani are likely to have attracted more suspicion than most because they lacked accreditation from Egypt’s press centre, carried video evidence of extreme state wrongdoing, and were on their way to Gaza – a place associated in the minds of many opponents of Morsi with the Muslim Brotherhood.