Detained Egyptian blogger: "I think someone set me up"



 
On Tuesday morning prominent Egyptian blogger and human rights activist Wael Abbas was detained by security officers at Cairo airport for more than 13 hours as he was returning from a conference in Sweden. His laptop remains confiscated by Egypt's anti-piracy authority. Abbas told MENASSAT upon his release that he thinks he was "set up."
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
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Prominent Egyptian blogger and human rights activist Wael Abbas © SASEEN KAWZALLY

BEIRUT, July 1, 2009 (MENASSAT) — For quite some time, Wael Abbas has traveled the world, giving speeches at conferences about human rights abuses in Egypt and the role of blogging in exposing rights violations committed by the state. Some jokingly refer to him as a contemporary Ibn Batuta, the famous 13th century Moroccan traveler and excursionist.

Abbas moderates the blog “Egyptian Awareness” and is one of the most well-known bloggers in the Arab world.  He has won numerous international journalism awards for his work in exposing issues such as police brutality, torture, and sexual harassment in Egypt.

While Abbas has had run-ins with the authorities in the past, he is rarely subject to prolonged detentions at the airport. But something about Abbas’ trip to the northern hemisphere to attend the Tallberg Forum, a yearly conference on global interdependence held in the north of Sweden, appears to have caught the attention of the Egyptian security services.

The forum features hundreds of high-level participants including politicians, intellectuals and public figures from various professional fields. At the conference, Abbas partook in discussions about the state of free speech in Egypt and social media tools.

When Abbas arrived at the passport counter at Cairo airport around 3am on Tuesday morning, he said that passport control took his travel documents and told him to wait. No one, however, would give him a reason for why his passport was taken.

“I kept asking the officers why they were holding my passport. No one said anything. The passport controller only asked me if I had ever been stopped in the airport before,” Abbas told MENASSAT.

Sit-in


After some time, Abbas said one of the officers quietly told him that his passport had been transferred to Egypt’s state security services. Abbas responded by staging a sit-in the middle of the airport, holding up a paper before incoming travelers on which he had written, “State security took my passport.”

Airport security appeared mildly entertained by Abbas’ move.

“I put the sign up. They (airport security) didn’t like it because there were lots of foreign passengers passing by. So they told me that they would give me back my passport,” continued Abbas.

Abbas was eventually handed back his passport and proceeded towards the baggage area to pick up his luggage. There, the next surprise awaited him. His bag had “disappeared.”

“I continued towards the luggage area. Of course my luggage was gone. So I went to the customs counter, who told me that they could not let me out because my bag was not there. I don’t think this was true,” said Abbas.

Then, officers at customs told Abbas that he was to be searched.

“They checked every single paper in my bag. Then they checked the medicine I take. They examined each pill and asked me about my medicine. ‘Were they looking for drugs, I asked myself?’” added Abbas.

When Abbas jokingly asked the officer what was so interesting about his medicine, the officer said that they had “received information about him.”

He continued to go through Abbas’ belongings, including his wallet, and took his camera and laptop.

The camera, Abbas said, was handed back to him quite fast since it only contained pictures of Swedish forests and animals.

Abbas’ laptop was confiscated by security officers who told him that it will be sent to Egypt’s Artistic Works, the country’s computer anti-piracy authority, where it will be scanned for illegal and pirated software and materials.

Abbas called these actions non-sense and believes that they are not the real reasons for his computer being confiscated.

“In either case, I don’t hide anything. I put everything on my blog. But I’m worried they will return my computer with spy-ware programs installed on it,” he said.

So does Abbas think he was, perhaps, set up?

“I think someone set me up. They’ve searched me before but never like this. It’s like the case of Howaida Taha,” he said.

Taha, an Egyptian journalist working for Al-Jazeera was stopped in Cairo in January 2007 as she was leaving the country. Taha had been working on a documentary on police brutality in Egypt and was later sentenced to six months in prison for harming Egypt’s national interests by allegedly fabricating video footage of police torture.

Abbas also believes there is a direct correlation between him attending the conference in Sweden and his detention.

“When they searched the papers in my bag, they focused more on the documents from the conference than anything else. They even asked me if had additional papers from the conference. I think they made copies of them,” he said.

Then there is also the allegation that members of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party who were present at the Tallberg Forum reported Abbas to the Egyptian security services.

“Security leaks: members of the NDP were present at the Tallberg Forum and reported me as harming the Egyptian interests to the authorities,” Abbas wrote in a tweet on his Twitter channel.

Daily News Egypt reported that Abbas believes the Egyptian government-affiliated youth organization “Future Generation” had members in attendance at the forum who were responsible for tipping off authorities in Cairo.

Abbas said that he, at several times, criticized the Egyptian authorities during the conference.

Abbas filed a police report about his detention and the confiscation of his laptop. He says that the police were hesitant about his report and that a high ranking police officer tried to make him change things in the report and advised him not to use expressions such as “illegal detention.”

Three lawyers from various rights groups in Egypt assisted Abbas at the airport.