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Dr. Tarek Loubani, centre, said he and John Greyson, right, were beaten by officers upon arriving in an Egyptian prison after they were detained. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Dr. Tarek Loubani, centre, said he and John Greyson, right, were beaten by officers upon arriving in an Egyptian prison after they were detained. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Jailed Canadians recount journey from Ramses Square to Egyptian prison and home Add to ...

After a month in an Egyptian prison, Tarek Loubani says he was pulled into a two-hour interrogation that did not seem aimed at investigating anything.

It started, Dr. Loubani said, with questions about the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, but slid into vague threats from a prison intelligence officer who told him “if he could, he would burn us alive.”

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Dr. Loubani, 32, said the 53 days that he and Toronto filmmaker John Greyson, 53, spent in the Cairo jail began with a beating, and continued in a crammed cell. But Dr. Loubani said there appeared to be no reason, other than they had been swept into Egypt’s penal system, where they “sort of throw people in and turn the key.”

“Arbitrary detention is exactly what they did to us,” Dr. Loubani said in a telephone interview before he left Cairo. “And then we were arbitrarily released.”

On Friday night, after seven weeks in jail, five days waiting for permission to leave Cairo, and a well-organized campaign for their release, the two men arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, expressing gratitude to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and junior foreign minister Lynne Yelich, and thanking friends, families, and supporters.

“Your hard work mattered, your voice mattered, it made a difference, we owe you our freedom,” Dr. Loubani said.

The pair had expected to be in Egypt for only half an hour. Dr. Loubani, a doctor from London, Ont., was passing through on the way to Gaza to teach emergency-medicine techniques. Mr. Greyson accompanied him to consider a film project.

But with the Gaza border closed, the two made a fateful decision to visit Ramses Square, the site of protests by supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. They found themselves facing a group carrying a man badly wounded by a gunshot, seeking a doctor’s help, and Dr. Loubani wondered where to take him.

“One of the people that was carrying him suggested a mosque. We were the first ones in,” Dr. Loubani said. “Before this guy dies, while I was working on him, the mosque was full. It was a massacre.”

The two men left the square, but later asked police for directions – and were arrested, among 600 detained. Their welcome to prison, he said, was a beating. “They beat the shit out of us,” Dr. Loubani said. The officers told each other not to hit in the face, but Dr. Loubani said they cracked one of his ribs, a mistake, he believes, while they were trying to hit his kidneys. “John had a boot print on his back for a week,” he said. “It was like show and tell – a perfect boot print.”

Friends and family quickly launched a well-organized campaign for their release. Justin Podur, a friend and York University professor, “quarterbacked” a communications campaign on social media and an online petition that garnered 150,000 signatures, including Hollywood celebrities. One government insider said the effort allowed them to show Egyptian officials that the case was hurting their image.

Politicians were pressed for help. Even MPs who did not represent them, like Toronto New Democrat Peggy Nash, were approached by constituents, and called the Foreign Affairs department. But, as the two men’s families insisted, it never became a partisan issue. Mr. Harper called for their release, noting they were not charged with anything. His ministers repeatedly pressed Egyptian counterparts.

But as the two men remained in detention, questions swirled in some quarters about what the two Canadians were doing in riot-torn Egypt on their way to Gaza.

They were a strange pair, having met only a year ago at the Toronto-Palestinian Film Festival, when Dr. Loubani walked up to Mr. Greyson and asked him if he wanted to go to Gaza.

Both are activists. Mr. Greyson has participated in gay-rights and anti-apartheid campaigns, and is now focused on “the plight of the Palestinian people,” said Mr. Greyson’s partner, Stephen Andrews, and once took part in a Gaza flotilla that was boarded by police. “The difference this time is he wasn’t imprisoned for his beliefs. He was caught up in a dragnet,” he said.

But friends of both men say it is impossible to imagine the funny Toronto filmmaker, or the deeply pacifist, liberal-minded humanitarian Dr. Loubani, taking part in violence, or joining Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

Dr. Loubani had been to Gaza before, including last November, when he took 15 nurses and doctors to teach emergency medicine. A Kuwaiti-born Palestinian refugee, he came to Canada when Kuwait expelled Palestinian refugees during the Gulf War, eventually settling in Bathurst, N.B. In London, he worked not only in emergency medicine, but treated homeless people at the city’s Centre of Hope, and travelled to help “people who aren’t able to help themselves,” said his friend and colleague, Andrew Jones.

His Palestinian background and plans to visit Gaza may have been one reason Egyptian officials treated him with suspicion, given their crackdown on the Brotherhood and wariness of Gaza’s ruling organization, Hamas, which was once linked to the Brotherhood. But Dr. Loubani dismissed the idea his Gaza work could suggest he’s a Hamas sympathizer, noting he has also worked in Colombia and Venezuela.

“I completely reject the idea of Palestine even at all. I’m anti-nationalist completely. What I believe in is everyone having basic rights,” he said. An advocate for women’s rights travelling to Gaza with Mr. Greyson, a gay filmmaker, is not the Hamas type, he said. “If you want to call me a die-hard leftist, then go ahead. But how does it fit in with the die-hard rightists of Hamas?” he said, adding: “I’d be an interesting Hamas sympathizer – the kind they throw in jail.”

In prison, his interrogators “loved” telling him he worked for both Hamas and its arch-enemy, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, Dr. Loubani said. The equipment he brought, and, he said, declared to Egypt’s border guards, included 10 wireless routers for the Gaza hospital and two toy helicopters to test as drones for delivering medical supplies – an idea now being studied in academic papers. And although that equipment eventually was questioned, it was not even of interest to Egyptian authorities at first, he said, or in the end.

But after an initial interrogation, he said, the others that followed, over long hours, never seemed to have a focus, and he started to believe they were not much more than curiosity. “It became immediately obvious we had nothing to do with anything. They just wanted to find a meaning for our arrest, so they would pull us out,” he said.

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