NOTES FROM A PRISON DI­ARY

IN HIS FIRST PUB­LIC AP­PEAR­ANCE SINCE HIS AC­QUIT­TAL LATE LAST YEAR, JOUR­NAL­IST BA­HER MO­HAMED AD­DRESSED A GATH­ER­ING OF STU­DENTS, FAC­ULTY AND GEN­ERAL PUB­LIC AT GE­ORGE­TOWN UNIVER­SITY IN QATAR, SHAR­ING HIS EX­PE­RI­ENCES OF HIS IM­PRIS­ON­MENT IN EGYPT.

Qatar Today - - INSIDE THIS ISSUE - BY AYSWARYA MURTHY

In his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance since his ac­quit­tal late last year, jour­nal­ist Ba­her Mo­hamed ad­dressed a gath­er­ing of stu­dents, fac­ulty and the gen­eral pub­lic at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity in Qatar, shar­ing his ex­pe­ri­ences of his im­pris­on­ment in Egypt.

How does one re­tain a sem­blance of san­ity and sense of pur­pose while be­ing stuck in ju­di­cial limbo for 21 months in a coun­try that has a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with democ­racy and free­dom of ex­pres­sion? Ba­her Mo­hamed notes he was able to make it through by chan­nel­ing his in­ner jour­nal­ist, de­cid­ing to stand for some­thing big­ger than him­self, min­imis­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and hav­ing ex­tended con­ver­sa­tions with his friend, an onion in a cup.

Mo­hamed and his Al Jazeera col­leagues, Peter Greste and Mo­hammed Fahmy, were ar­rested in Egypt in late 2013 on charges of spread­ing false news and be­ing sup­port­ers of the now-banned Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. Af­ter two tri­als, mul­ti­ple ap­peals, a sus­tained so­cial me­dia cam­paign and mount­ing in­ter­na­tional pres­sure, a pres­i­den­tial par­don brought the sor­did af­fair to an end as sud­denly as it had all be­gun. That one De­cem­ber day in 2013.

“They shot my dog”

“On De­cem­ber 29, se­cu­rity of­fi­cials came to my place,” Mo­hamed re­counts, stand­ing in front of a packed house mainly of stu­dents of jour­nal­ism and political sci­ence. “I re­mem­ber a col­league had called me a few hours be­fore, ask­ing me to leave home and go into hid­ing; they were look­ing for me.” But for him, run­ning away was out of the ques­tion. De­spite the dark­en­ing cli­mate of op­pres­sion and si­lenc­ing of voices against Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah El Sisi's new govern­ment, he had faith in his in­no­cence and the due process of the law. And so he waited. “They stormed my house. Shot my dog. De­stroyed my home. And – I have to say it – robbed me of my money, cam­era and other equip­ment,” he says. As he was be­ing ar­rested, he could see shock writ­ten large over his wife's eyes, over those of his par­ents' and even in the eyes of his dy­ing

dog who lay bleed­ing on the floor.

Mo­hamed was con­vinced that he would be re­leased in a cou­ple of days. This was al­most rou­tine for jour­nal­ists – the threat of jail be­ing used as a means to push them around – and usu­ally a few days would suf­fice. And so at the po­lice camp, to which he was taken first, Mo­hamed was very much in work mode. “There were so many peo­ple there who came up to me to share their sto­ries with me. Shock­ing and hor­ri­ble re­al­i­ties.” And he lis­tened care­fully, try­ing to mem­o­rise ev­ery de­tail of ev­ery per­sonal ac­count be­cause “the peo­ple had to know.”

The pub­lic's in­alien­able right to know has been the cor­ner­stone of Mo­hamed's work ethic since his days as a reporter for Ja­pan's Asahi Shim­bun news­pa­per and a free­lancer with other in­ter­na­tional me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions. Ev­ery risk he takes is fu­elled by this be­lief. The son of a jour­nal­ist, Mo­hamed re­mem­bers want­ing to be a reporter since he was six years old. “Pas­sion for jour­nal­ism was al­ways part of my life and part of my fam­ily's life,” he says. In May of 2013 he joined Al Jazeera, just in time, it seemed, for the June 30 protests that would go on to shake the very foun­da­tions of Egyp­tian pol­i­tics. For him, Al Jazeera was the Arab an­swer to the likes of CNN and BBC and he wanted to be a part of it. “At Al Jazeera, if you had a good story to tell, they'd wel­come it. My first pack­age for them was about the state of me­dia in Egypt (this is be­fore the ouster of for­mer Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Morsi) and how po­larised they were. I am proud of that and ev­ery other re­port I pro­duced there till the day of my ar­rest.”

Ra­dio shows and rig­ma­role

The next day, he was sub­jected to a 12-hour in­ter­ro­ga­tion with a state pros­e­cu­tor. “I, be­ing a grad­u­ate of law, be­lieved that the pros­e­cu­tor is a lawyer of the peo­ple. But it was the op­po­site and I was be­ing trapped,” he says. The lawyer told Mo­hamed that he was go­ing to a bet­ter place – the no­to­ri­ous Tura or Scor­pion Prison, a max­i­mum se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity that is known for hous­ing high-level political pris­on­ers and ji­hadists. Mo­hamed and his col­leagues spent two months there, await­ing trial. “We slept on ce­ment floors. There was no light and we were kept in the dark all day. There were no visi­ta­tions, no op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­er­cise, no good food. While we were never phys­i­cally harmed (though we kept

hear­ing sto­ries of oth­ers who had been tor­tured, elec­tro­cuted and even killed), th­ese con­di­tions amounted to men­tal tor­ture,” he re­calls. Worse still was the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing their ar­rest. What for? Why them? Why now? “One of Morsi's aides, who was a fel­low pris­oner, told us that we were pro­fes­sional and fair, and that had re­ally an­noyed them dur­ing their time in of­fice. That made me happy; if we weren't pleas­ing ei­ther side, that meant we were do­ing a good job. Ul­ti­mately I think that was the rea­son for our ar­rest.”

In Scor­pion, the pris­on­ers were iso­lated and couldn't speak to one an­other. So Mo­hamed was forced to be­friend an onion. “He was my only friend and as I spoke to him about the things I was feel­ing, I learnt that ex­pec­ta­tions were dan­ger­ous and dis­ap­point­ments were crush­ing. Our brains are beau­ti­ful cre­ations – they could ei­ther lead you to a won­der­land or to the depths of hell. You have to be in con­trol of your brain. Greste was med­i­tat­ing and he helped me learn how to do it. I was liv­ing day by day andt ry­ing to en­joy what I had. I sculpted rocks, lis­ten­ing more deeply to the birds out­side the prison.” Soon, the jour­nal­ists came up with other ways to oc­cupy them­selves. In­car­cer­ated along with him were mem­bers of Morsi's pres­i­den­tial team – for­mer min­is­ters, the speaker of the par­lia­ment and se­nior lead­ers of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood; iron­i­cally, men that the jour­nal­ists would have loved to have in­ter­viewed in the out­side world. “I had so many ques­tions for them,” Mo­hamed laughs. So he and his col­leagues cre­ated a mock ra­dio show where he in­vited dif­fer­ent "guests" and grilled them about the is­sues of the day. “We talked, sang, read po­etry, made jokes. The guards once told us that the war­den came in of­ten to eaves­drop on the show and he liked it. He even had some ques­tions for us and our guests.” In many ways, Mo­hamed was in his el­e­ment. He still had the use of his great­est strength and weapon – his skills in ap­proach­ing peo­ple, mak­ing them com­fort­able and get­ting their sto­ries. “Work­ing with the Ja­panese taught me the im­por­tance of build­ing re­la­tion­ships. Also I love be­ing in the field and meet­ing peo­ple – from shanty towns to golf cour­ses.”

At their trial, ev­i­dence was con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence. “I re­mem­ber telling the judge, 'Can you please pro­duce any sin­gle piece of ev­i­dence so we can de­fend our­selves?' Be­cause it's hard to prove the neg­a­tive, to prove that you didn't do some­thing.” To ev­ery­one's shock, all three were sen­tenced to seven years in prison and Mo­hamed was given three ex­tra years for be­ing in pos­ses­sion of a spent bul­let cas­ing, a mem­o­ra­bilia from his days of re­port­ing in Libya. He started to re­alise that this was his chance to stand for some­thing big, a chance which only comes once in a life­time.

#FreeAJStaff

From in­side prison, Mo­hamed and his col­leagues would hear news of the grow­ing sup­port and sol­i­dar­ity for their cause. “Ini­tially I thought I was an ex­ag­ger­a­tion but when I was re­leased on bail I was over­whelmed by the mas­sive sup­port from all over the world. I couldn't be­lieve it,” he says.” I still re­ceive gifts and post­cards from peo­ple who are glad I am out. I am so thank­ful to them, to those jour­nal­ists in So­ma­lia, Pak­istan, in war zones send­ing us wishes and en­cour­age­ment dur­ing this cam­paign. I am sure this global push is the rea­son I am free to­day. Wher­ever Sisi went, they were talk­ing to him about us and other jour­nal­ists who were be­hind bars in Egypt. They were pres­sur­ing him about free­dom of ex­pres­sion and press free­dom. I'd like to thank all the heads of state. I would have never imag­ined that one day Obama would men­tion my name,” he laughs. “The United Na­tions, lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional NGOs, news net­works, all sorts of reg­u­lar peo­ple came out in sup­port of us. The is­sue was no longer about three ar­rested jour­nal­ists. It was about press free­dom. Peo­ple un­der­stand and know how im­por­tant it is. Even our com­peti­tors united to­gether to stand for us, for free­dom of ex­pres­sion. I would have never imag­ined th­ese global news net­works would pause broad­cast­ing and stage silent protests. I would like for this kind of ac­tion to con­tinue to free ev­ery im­pris­oned jour­nal­ist from ev­ery coun­try.”

De­spite miss­ing the birth of his son while in prison, he says he would do it all again if he had to. “In times like th­ese you get to know who your friends are. I lost many, even a very close friend of mine, be­cause they be­lieved th­ese al­le­ga­tions. But the Free Ba­her Face­book page was cre­ated by a friend who hadn't seen me in five years. I also be­lieve it's worth ev­ery­thing I went through, even not be­ing present for my child's birth, if it means I can help my so­ci­ety, if I can help my son. I want him to live in a coun­try that be­lieves in th­ese prin­ci­ples and I hope I can make that change.” Mo­hamed be­lieves the aware­ness his case cre­ated was good for Egypt, for its many jailed ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and thinkers. “Press free­dom will be be­hind bars when jour­nal­ists are be­hind bars. We can't have a healthy demo­cratic world with­out fun­da­men­tal el­e­ments like free­dom of ex­pres­sion. And this ap­plies to ev­ery coun­try in the world. Why should any coun­try be afraid of let­ting some­one speak?” he asks pas­sion­ately. “Let your peo­ple speak. Let your me­dia work freely.”

BA­HER MO­HAMED at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Qatar

AFP PHOTO / STR

Ba­her Mo­hamed speaks on the phone af­ter be­ing dropped off by au­thor­i­ties fol­low­ing his re­lease from prison af­ter be­ing par­doned by Pres­i­dent Sisi on Septem­ber 23.

AFP PHOTO / MO­HAMED EL-SHA­HED

Ji­han Rashid, the wife of Ba­her Mo­hamed, poses with one of their chil­dren dur­ing

an in­ter­view by AFP jour­nal­ists.

AFP PHOTO / KHALED DE­SOUKI

Ba­her Mo­hamed at­tends his trial at the To­rah prison in Cairo on Au­gust 2, 2015.

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