#FreeAJStaff: Letter from John Greyson, Toronto filmmaker detained in Cairo in 2013

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This letter is an updated version of an article originally published in the Toronto Star to mark the 100th day in prison for Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. It was updated by the author to mark their 150th day in prison, May 27, 2014.

By John Greyson

Dear Mo:

We don’t know each other, but on April 8, I marked the hundredth day of your incarceration by running a 5k in the shape of your chin. Down St. George, along College, down Ross -- it was a tricky route, easy to make a wrong turn and give you an extra ear. I'm using a runners GPS watch to create this portrait of you, recording the run and transferring the resulting map to photoshop. Etch-a-sketch for the digital age. So far I’ve been able to 'run' your hair, your ears, your sunglasses.

Now it’s been 150 days for you in Tora. Tarek Loubani and I were locked up in this same Cairo prison last fall, in the cell block two over from yours, where you’re being held with fellow Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed since late December for the crime of doing your job. As I run, I think about similarities and differences.

Our detention lasted 50 days, and we were never charged with anything, though we and 600 others were constantly threatened with a grab-bag of ridiculous accusations. You’ve actually been charged, and face a very serious if similarly farcical grab bag: spreading false news, operating without a permit, aiding or belonging to a terrorist organization. A couple of weeks ago, the prosecution showed footage of you doing a story about a sheep farm, claiming this as proof of your terrorist leanings. Talk about desperate.

We were arrested at a police checkpoint, trying to get back to our hotel. You were arrested in a raid on your hotel room. We were roughed up and marched in front of a TV camera, along with a so-called Syrian terrorist. (In fact, we later learned that he's Egyptian, a sweet gentle Grade 3 teacher who happens to have a Syrian mother.) That's how desperate they were back in August, trying to manufacture an alleged international terrorist conspiracy for the evening news: a London, Ontario Palestinian doctor, a Syrian grade school teacher, a gay Toronto filmmaker.

The police filmed the raid on your room, zooming in on your laptop as though it was a bomb. When they broadcast the footage that night, they added an ominous score -- the soundtrack from Thor: The Dark World -- and the prosecutor referred to you three as the "Marriott terrorist cell." That's how desperate they were in December.

Desperation begets ruthlessness. In mid-March, and again in late April, an Egyptian judge sentenced two groups of protesters (numbering 529 and 682 respectively) to death on ridiculous charges based on an utter lack of evidence. General Sisi and his government seem determined to exterminate any and all expressions of opposition to their regime, oblivious to human cost, world opinion or actual evidence. Your show trial seems similarly calculated to terrorize the press into silence, punishing Al Jazeera in particular. Certainly the photographs of you three, caged like dogs in your kangaroo court, delivers an unequivocal message to the world: due process has been suspended for the duration.

We were allowed access to doctors for minor complaints. Your fractured arm remains untreated. We were locked up in late summer, when the lack of shoes wasn't a problem. You’ve endured a Cairo winter in an unheated cell. We showered by dumping a sawed-off Fanta bottle of cold Nile water over our heads. I don't know how you shower. The cockroaches in your cell are no doubt distant cousins to the ones that infested our walls.

I run past the ROM, smugly proud of its Egyptian antiquities. I run past the Israeli consulate, representing a government that has cuddled up to Sisi's military dictatorship just about as warmly and quickly as Harper's. I'm running because the only exercise we were allowed in Tora was half an hour every second day, running in a circle in a long, narrow cage. I'm running because you can't.

On May 1, you were awarded the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom’s top award. Your colleagues around the world marked your 100th day of incarceration on April 7 by holding demonstrations and public conferences in Pretoria, London, and New York, joining celebrities and government leaders to speak out for all journalists jailed in Egypt, and on behalf of press freedom and human rights. TV anchors taped their mouths shut in an on-air demonstration of solidarity. Thousands tweeted selfies with the #freeAJstaff slogan, a global campaign that is gaining momentum.

Back in March, my friend Jesse was in court, and heard you call out from his cage regarding Canada's shocking silence about your case: "Why isn't the government taking a stronger stand? I don't know what they're waiting for." Beyond platitudes about consular support, Harper and Baird have done exactly nothing on behalf of you, even as they embrace the restoration of military dictatorship. Baird’s recent diplomatic mission to Egypt, spent normalizing relations with Sisi’s regime, was a shocking insult to every Canadian – and a reckless gesture of indifference to your plight.

Today is the 150th day of your incarceration, three times the number of days that Tarek and I endured. Today I’m running your other ear, and thinking of you…

Peace and love,
John Greyson


John Greyson is a Toronto filmmaker and associate professor at York University. Greyson and Tarek Loubani were detained in Tora prison for 50 days in 2013.