After spending nearly 15 years in an Egyptian prison for a crime he insists he did not commit, Canadian Egyptian Mohamed el-Attar has returned to Canada.
Now going by the name Joseph Attar after converting to Christianity, he was convicted of spying for Israel. His conviction was based mostly on a confession, which he said he signed after being tortured with electric shocks and forced to drink his own urine.
Pushing a luggage cart carrying a few belongings to start his life from scratch in Canada, Mr. Attar said through tears that he can’t believe he is finally free.
“I don’t believe I’m here after 15 years. I’m free, no more handcuffs, no more being afraid of an officer. No more double face. No more hiding my faith,” he told The Globe and Mail early Friday morning at Toronto Pearson airport. He said he is innocent and wants to clear his name.
“It’s a mix of strong feelings and strong emotions. I’m so happy,” he said, adding that he was going to take a selfie so he could remember the moment.
Mr. Attar, 45, came to Canada as a refugee in 2002, fearful of persecution in Egypt for his faith. He returned to Cairo in 2007 to visit his grandmother who was dying, he said. But he was promptly arrested. His case initially garnered international attention when Egypt said they had caught a spy, but the attention waned.
In the transcript of his interrogation, Mr. Attar said that, while in Canada, he recruited agents, specifically gay people and those who were facing financial difficulty in Arab communities, to spy for Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad. He also said he used his position as a teller at CIBC to find possible recruits. Israel had repeatedly rejected Egypt’s claims that it caught a Mossad agent. But on Friday, he said he made up the story to stop the torture.
The transcript also alleged that he was under regular surveillance by Egypt’s intelligence service the whole time he was in Canada. And Mr. Attar said that in Canada he thought somebody was following him.
But the real trouble began after he landed in Cairo. Mr. Attar said an officer questioned him about his friendships with two men in Canada they suspected of being Mossad officers. Mr. Attar insisted that they were not, they were simply his friends and that he didn’t judge people based on faith. Shortly after that, he said, the torture began.
“I was put under psychological and physical pressure to say things that were not true. First they electrocuted me and then they forced me to drink urine.”
And he insists he was targeted because of his faith, not his perceived sexual orientation. He said Egyptian officers created a baseless case based on information he gave while he was being tortured and that the officers sought to smear his name and galvanize the Egyptian public. Mr. Attar said that when it comes to his sexuality, it’s personal.
Mr. Attar first went to Tora prison, followed by more than six years in Wadi El Natrun, which he described as “the worst prison ever on the planet,” and spent the remaining couple of years in a prison designated for foreigners.
He said Wadi El Natrun was incredibly overcrowded, with 36 inmates to a small cell. He saw prisoners tortured there, he said, used as punching bags. He was put into solitary confinement on a few occasions, he said. He credits Canada’s embassy, which made consular visits and looked after him, for the reason why he was not treated as poorly as others.
Wearing a brown cardigan overtop a navy sweater and a Puma watch, he looks like any average Canadian, rather than someone just returning from a long period in an Egyptian prison. But that’s because one of the embassy staff, he said, helped him with clothes before he returned home.
But over the course of 15 years, Mr. Attar had few people fighting for him in Canada. In 2016, Majed El Shafie, founder of One Free World International, a humanitarian organization, took on his case and put pressure on the Canadian government to act.
Mr. El Shafie greeted Mr. Attar at the airport Friday morning, giving him a bouquet of colourful flowers.
“I believe that after a lot of pressure and a lot of advocating for the last many years, I think this has paid off. And I believe that actually there was a fear that the Egyptians would not release him at all,” Mr. El Shafie said.
On Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted that she is glad to see Mr. Attar back in Canada. “Throughout this difficult process, Canada has been there to support Mr. Attar and repeatedly raise his case at the highest levels. Thank you to the dedicated public servants for their hard work in this effort.”
Mr. Attar said for the first half of his sentence, he did not feel that he had the support of the previous Conservative government, saying he wrote to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s office and didn’t receive a response.
In 2015, after Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister, Mr. Attar said, he wrote to him and received a response from then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, indicating that his case was a priority. Still, he served his full sentence.
“Who is going to compensate me for this?” he said.
Mr. Attar said he would like to get his position back with CIBC, saying that for him it is not only a job but “a way of living.”
Throughout the interview, Mr. Attar spoke a lot about his faith and he said he wants to help people who are going through what he has.
“I’m full of positive energy for what’s coming next. I’m not judging nobody, the Lord told us to forgive and this is what I’m doing now. I forgive those who tortured me. I forgive them,” he said.
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