First Person: RFE/RL’s Correspondent Robert Tait on his Detention in Cairo

Via Radio Free Europe:

The sickening, rapid clicking sound of the electrocution devices — like an angry rattlesnake on the attack — is what haunts me still; that and the agonized wailing, followed by a pitiful whimpering and occasional pleas for mercy of the handcuffed, blindfolded victims as they were propelled across the floor by the force of the shocks.

My palms sweated and my heart raced furiously as the sinister noise came within inches of me, together with the thumps of vicious punches and kicks against the prone bodies next to me.

I listened uncomprehending but spellbound to the torturers’ abusive shouts in Arabic. Blindfolded, bound, and lying on the floor like the others, I wondered if my turn would come. Thankfully, it never did, although the brutality continued, almost unabated, for hours. Rendered immune no doubt by my British nationality, I had become an island, an untouchable, in an orgy of violence. It was somehow what I expected yet it made the experience no less frightening.

I had read, with a fascinated yet detached horror, accounts of conditions in torture cells in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Pinochet’s Chile, 1970s junta-run Argentina, present-day Iran, and elsewhere. It all seemed so remote and unreal. What would it be like, I wondered, to be imprisoned, helpless and totally dependent on — and at the mercy of — your captor for food, water, and toiletry needs?

Never did I imagine that I would live to find out.

I had been detained on February 4, along with my colleague, Abdelilah Nuaimi — a fellow British citizen of Iraqi birth and a journalist with RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq — shortly after arriving in Cairo to cover the disturbances that have rocked Egypt for the past fortnight. We had read en route that the Egyptian authorities were systematically targeting foreign journalists. On board a virtually empty flight from Amsterdam to Cairo, we were nervous and wary but hoped the combination of Abdelilah’s Arab background and my years of experience in the Middle East would see us through.

Our troubles began soon after we arrived at the airport.

After purchasing our visas and passing through passport control, customs officials demanded to check our baggage and objected immediately on finding a camera and a satellite phone inside mine.

“These guys are journalists and you know what we’re meant to do with journalists,” an official said to a colleague.
Held in a neighboring room, Abdelilah was spared the proximity. Yet its effect on him may have been more profound because, as a native Arabic speaker, he understood the context, heard every cruel instruction, every obscene scream of abuse.

He heard an intelligence agent ordering, “Get the electric shocks ready, this lot are to be made to really suffer,” as a new batch of prisoners were brought in.

“In this hotel, we only have two things on the menu for those who don’t behave — electrocution and rape,” the unfortunate detainees were told.

The hotel metaphor seemed hellishly apposite, as its staff dished out treats with a brutish, well-practiced efficiency.

“Why did you do this to your country?” a jailer screamed as he tormented his victim. “You are not to speak in here, do you understand?” one prisoner was told. He did not reply. Thump. “Do you understand?” Still no answer. More thumps. “Do you understand?” Prisoner: “Yes, I understand.” Torturer: “I told you not to speak in here,” followed by a cascade of thumps, kicks, and electric shocks.

Exhausted by the continual abuse, the prisoners fell into a slumber and snored loudly, provoking another round of furious assaults. “You’re committing a sin,” a stricken detainee said in a weak, pitiful voice.
We had come to find out what was ailing Egypt. Without meeting one protester or seeing a single scene of unrest, we had learned the answer more graphically than we ever anticipated. It was “the emergency, stupid,” as my chubby-faced captor might have put it.

We heard it in the screams of those being tortured by the willing tools of Mubarak’s police state. We heard it in the running of the Mukhabarat “hotel,” with its limited but forever unchanging menu. But it hadn’t started just two weeks ago — it had continued through the 30 years of the president’s military-enforced rule.

The echoing cries of its victims may linger with me for just as long.

Read Robert Tait’s full account in ‘An Island In An Orgy Of Violence’ — A Firsthand Account Of Being Detained In Cairo