The family and friends of two Canadians detained in Egypt did not receive the news they have been waiting for—or any news—when an Egyptian prosecutor failed to appear on Thursday for a scheduled hearing.
Award-winning filmmaker John Greyson and emergency room physician Tarek Loubani have been detained in Tora prison, near Cairo, since August 16. The two landed in Cairo on August 15 with the intention of visiting Gaza’s largest medical complex, Al-Shifa hospital, where Loubani was to continue medical work and Greyson was to explore the possibility of a new film project. Upon their arrival, the men were unable to make the trip into Gaza because the Egyptian government had closed the Rafah crossing the previous Monday, citing security reasons. (Rafah is Gaza’s only access point to the rest of the world, other than the tightly controlled borders with Israel).
The pair decided to stay in Cairo and await the border’s reopening. The following night, the men apparently became lost after curfew and stopped at a police station to ask for directions to their hotel. At around 10 pm Cairo time, Justin Podur, their emergency contact, received a ten-second phone call from Loubani: “We’re being arrested. It’s the Egyptian police. Call the Consulate. I have to go.”
Nearly forty-eight hours passed before family and friends knew they were okay; the Canadian consulate determined their whereabouts and managed to visit them at Tora prison on Sunday, August 18. A hearing with an Egyptian prosecutor was announced in the next few days. The two possible outcomes of this much-anticipated hearing: an extended detention period of a further fifteen days, or their release. “It’s not obvious to me if [the delay] makes either one of those possibilities less or more likely when the eventual appearance with the prosecutor happens,” Podur remarked, expressing disappointment with the delay and telling The Nation that receiving no news “fall[s] right in between the worst and better outcomes.”
The exact circumstances of Greyson and Loubani’s arrest remain unclear. Ramses Square, the site of Azbkya police station where they were arrested, was at the center of violent clashes between anti-military pro-Morsi supporters and government security forces on that day. Some eighty people were killed August 16, mostly in Cairo, during one of the bloodiest days Egypt has seen since the Arab Spring.
Adam El Shalakany, one of their lawyers, says Loubani and Greyson have been accused of a “general bundle of crimes that everyone else detained that day [in Azbkya district] was accused of.” This includes at least 385 other people, including four Irish nationals, two Syrians and one Turkish national, who were arrested in Ramses Square’s Al-Fateh mosque, according to Egypt’s interior ministry. The entire group of arrestees, including Loubani and Greyson, are being accused of the following crimes: belonging to an armed gang; possession of weapons; threatening security and social peace; inciting violence; disabling public transport and communications. Though they cannot be charged with such a count, the prosecutor has insinuated that the accused were involved with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Loubani and Greyson’s support team have opposed the decision by Egypt’s prosecutor to hoist the full set of accusations onto the entire group of people arrested on August 16, calling the move a “clear attempt to put a group of foreigners arrested at different times and places into a single group to create a far-fetched story about foreigners to justify ongoing imprisonment.”
Loubani and Greyson are being detained under those accusations –“not ‘charges’ exactly,” according to El Shalakany—at the prosecutor’s discretion. It is only once the accusations and evidence are presented to a judge that the “accusations” would become “charges.” According to Egyptian law, the prosecutor may keep the accused detained for three consecutive fifteen-day periods. After forty-five days, the prosecutor must “refer [the case] to a judge and refer to formal investigation,” says El Shalakany.
Yesterday, some thirty or forty lawyers waited all day outside Tora prison for the prosecutor, Mohamed Heti, or a member of his office to begin the detention renewal hearing. With curfew approaching and no sign from the prosecutor’s office, the lawyers had to leave.
El Shalakany has not received an explanation for the prosecutor’s absence, but he speculated that it was “most likely because of anxieties or insecurities about [Friday] and the upcoming events on the weekend—it is supposed to be a dangerous day because the Muslim Brotherhood has called it a ‘day of reckoning.’”
The first fifteen-day detention period has now lapsed without a renewal hearing, and nervous supporters of Loubani and Greyson in Canada and around the world are unsure what to make of it. El Shalakany emphasized that he doesn’t know for certain, but he believes that the prosecution likely has automatically renewed the detention order, thus entering into another fifteen-day period. “On Sunday [the beginning of the work week in Egypt], we’ll know if an order has been finalized for a renewal to the detention process”.
A doctor who visited the men relayed to the families that Loubani and Greyson were in “good health [and] high spirits,” though their legal team has cited concerns about the cell’s overcrowding. Since their arrest on August 16, Loubani and Greyson have not left the interior of Tora prison—from which former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was released on August 22—because officials, citing security concerns, have banned use of the courtyard for all prisoners. Accompanied by Canadian consular officials, lead defense counsel Marwa Farouk and Emad El Sissi last saw Loubani and Greyson over a week ago, on August 22.
In the meantime, family and friends of the men have banded together to agitate for their immediate release. Cecilia Greyson, spokesperson and sister of John, remarked on the outpouring of support, telling The Nation: “it has brought together people very rapidly. People care about them so much that we’re all able to put everything else on hold until we see this situation is resolved. That’s what anyone does when their loved ones are in crisis. But because of the high profile nature of their work…it becomes a little bit bigger than a regular story.”
John Greyson, an associate film professor at York University in Toronto, is one of Canada’s most prolific filmmakers. His work, including Zero Patience (1993) and Lilies (1996), has inspired a number of career retrospectives nationally and internationally, most recently at the California Institute of the Arts in 2010 and at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario last year. Greyson has been involved in a range of activist work, particularly around HIV/AIDS and Palestinian human rights.
Tarek Loubani is an assistant professor at Western University and an emergency physician at the London Health Science Centre in Ontario. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, he arrived in Canada as a 10-year-old refugee. A member of Canadian Doctors for Refugees, he has advocated for equal healthcare access for refugees and other marginalized patients. At Al Shifa hospital, where he was headed with Greyson, Loubani launched the first certified Advanced Cardiac Life Support course for physicians in Gaza, in partnership with Western University. Friends estimate that he dedicates as much as four months of the year working in Gaza as a volunteer.
To date, the family and friends of Loubani and Greyson have gathered nearly a hundred letters of support from a wide range of prominent institutions and individuals. On Monday, Canadian filmmakers and artists Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian released a video in English and Arabic appealing for the safety and freedom of their friends.
From the Sundance Film Festival and Director’s Guild of Canada, to the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian Medical Association, a nearly universal demand to “Free Tarek and John” has been building. While the Canadian government continues to call for their release, a Change.org petition has accrued over 93,000 signatures, and the national newspaper The Globe & Mail wrote a strongly worded—if obnoxiously titled—editorial on the duo’s behalf.
Canadian consular officials have told Loubani and Greyson of the massive mobilization for their release, and relayed that the two men are “moved and humbled by the support.”
There is no doubt that Loubani and Greyson have longstanding, admirable commitments to civil rights and humanitarian work. Indeed, as spokesperson Justin Podur commented, “you imagine people who don’t have that level of visibility in the community and what happens to them. I do think it’s very important they have this level of support—it hasn’t gotten them out yet, of course, but I think it’s very important.”