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Egypt 1st-Hand: A British Journalist's 54 Days in Detention For Covering Protests (Hickson)

Egyptian forces watch a women's march in Cairo, 5 February 2012

Writing on the blog of his Cairo-based colleague Jonathan Rashad, British photojournalist Alisdare Hickson recounts his 54 days in detention for covering clashes near the Ministry of Interior:

On 5th of February 2012 I was arrested just off Mohamed Mahmoud street in central Cairo where I had been taking photographs of the protests and riots.

The day of my arrest was scary but similar to other days when I had photographed riot situations but the gas being used seemed particularly toxic. The previous day I had seen many people vomiting and one man shaking in uncontrollable convlusions. So the morning of the fifth the protesters were understandably nervous. One insisted it was not safe and that I should leave. I wish I had taken his advice.

Every now and again the armoured vans, with police shooting from the roofs and sirens wailing, rushed forwards down the street and the protesters scattered. At one such moment around midday I photographed them as they fled past me before I belatedly turned and ran with the last of them into a side street that led towards Falaky Square.

However as the gas clouds filled the air it became difficult to see and I followed several others into a narrow alley way which unfortunately turned out to be a dead end. Only minutes later several policemen armed with long black sticks entered and when they found us hiding in a stairwell adjacent a basement door they ordered us out. Then I heard one policeman shout ”Agnaby” (foreigner).

I was led away and some moments later one of the policemen shouted “Yahoody” (Jewish) and despite my quickly shouting “No English” I found myself being dragged along the ground as I was beaten twice on the top of my head and once on my forehead and had everything including my two cameras, passport and wallet ripped from my hand and pockets. I was then taken to the Ministry of Interior building a few hundred metres away where I was interviewed by several seemingly senior officers, some of whom were in military uniform.

There was a glass of water on a table but when I asked if I could have a drink I was told “only after you have answered all our questions.” One uniformed officer added “Don’t worry. You will soon tell us everything.” However about an hour later they relented, gave me a drink and asked a medic to treat my head injuries. I was then told I was being charged with “stone throwing” – a completely false accusation.

I later learned that 73 Egyptians and one 50 year old Korean woman were also arrested and charged with the same or similar acts of public violence that day. All or almost all were released without charge within the next eight weeks and I was one of the very last to win my freedom. I met the Korean woman several times in police vans. She was a small woman and obviously depressed about her situation but incredibly generous always offering her cigarettes and food to fellow prisoners. She said she ran a bed and breakfast back in Korea and insisted she had never thrown a stone. Not that I needed much convincing of her innocence.

On the first night after my arrest I was transferred to a basement cell below Abdeen Police Station which I shared with 30 other prisoners. There were just three small heavily barred windows high up on wall letting in a tiny amount of light from the street above. There were no beds and barely enough space on the floor to sleep and I would wake up every half hour as someone stepped on my legs in an attempt to reach the toilet/washroom. This was a tiny space cordened off by a dirty sheet with a single toilet and a broken tap with water continually cascading down the wall.

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