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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Rare Visit With a Jailed Journalist in Egypt

A first-person account of a visit with Mohamed Fahmy, part of a team of journalists from Al Jazeera English who were arrested 10 days ago on accusations that their coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood constituted “false news” and “incitement,” has provided a rare glimpse into prison conditions in Egypt as the government cracks down on the Brotherhood and anyone suspected of supporting it.

The account was published on Monday by McClatchy Newspapers, whose Cairo correspondent, Nancy Youssef, secured a visit with Mr. Fahmy when he was briefly transferred from Egypt’s notorious Tora prison, used to house many political prisoners, to another facility on the outskirts of the capital for interrogation.

Mr. Fahmy, who previously worked for CNN and the BBC and has contributed to The New York Times, was detained with several other Al Jazeera English staff members, including Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent who won a Peabody Award in 2011 for his coverage of Somalia for the BBC.

Video of Peter Greste’s Peabody Award-winning BBC documentary, “Somalia: a Land of Anarchy,” has been posted to YouTube in three parts.

In addition to his work in daily journalism, Mr. Fahmy is also a published author whose books include an account of Egypt’s 2011 uprising entitled, “Egyptian Freedom Story.” Ramy Yaacoub, a political analyst, recently tweeted a picture of his copy of the book, and noted the sad contrast, given its author’s imprisonment.

They are all believed to be held in Tora, which Ms. Youssef noted is home to “Egypt’s worst criminals.” It has also housed both former President Hosni Mubarak and his deposed successor, Mohamed Morsi.

Ragia Omran, a well-known Egyptian human rights lawyer, posted an update to Twitter on Sunday describing the conditions in which Mr. Fahmy, who uses Twitter under the handle @Repent11, was being held.

To see Mr. Fahmy, Ms. Youssef wrote that she and a colleague presented themselves to prison officials not as journalists, but as his friends, “for fear of being arrested.” It is rare for a reporter to be granted access to a prisoner in such a politically sensitive case, and Ms. Youssef said she was not sure why they had been allowed in at all.

“In Egypt, the legal system is strict until it’s not; every rule, it seems, can be broken,” she wrote

Fahmy looked haggard and confused but healthy. He had the early signs of a beard and he hadn’t combed his hair. He rarely looked his visitors in the eye, seemingly confused. “I am fine,” he said.

He said prison authorities had refused to give him a sleeping bag and pillow that had been sent to him in prison after lawyers reported that he was sleeping on the floor. “They didn’t allow it,” he said.

He said he was being held in solitary confinement in Tora, with no light and with “insects.” He asked for food - Egyptian prison food is notoriously bad - and his friend turned over a duffle bag and four other bags filled with food, toiletries, clothing, water, towels, notebooks, a pen and cigarettes.

“He can trade favors from the guards with the cigarettes,” a lawyer had explained earlier.

Fahmy only glanced at the bags. “I’m being held the worst of everyone,” he said. “Why are they putting me in a highly secured prison?”

Whether he meant he was being treated worse than other prisoners or worse than Greste and the other Al Jazeera English staff members was unclear.

He said he hadn’t yet received medical treatment for a shoulder injury that he’d suffered before his arrest but that had grown worse since. “I am trying to get to the hospital, but it is slow,” he said, pointing to his shoulder.

Mr. Fahmy’s Twitter account, which is followed by more than 18,000 people, is now being run by his family members, who use it to post occasional updates about his case, including efforts to secure him access to medical care. In an update posted to Twitter on Saturday, they said he had been promised a trip to the hospital once his most recent round of interrogations had ended, but on Sunday they said that officials had reneged on that promise.