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American Student Spends 4 Days In Egyptian Jail


Now let's meet an American who was swept up in Egypt's crackdown on free speech. Since small protests broke out in September, human rights groups say the Egyptian government has arrested at least 3,000 people. They're using a new tactic - searching people's cellphones - which is how the American spent four days in jail. Here's NPR's Merrit Kennedy.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Aaron Boehm was walking on the street in downtown Cairo with a friend when a plainclothes policemen approached them.

AARON BOEHM: He stopped us, asked to look at our phones.

KENNEDY: Boehm, who's originally from Detroit, had recently arrived in Egypt as part of the University of Edinburgh's study abroad program. That morning, Cairo was bracing for a rare protest. And the security official saw on his phone that he had messaged news articles to friends about what was going on in Egypt. That's when Boehm was separated from his friend and put in a vehicle.

BOEHM: From that point, I was blindfolded for about 15, 16, 17 hours.

KENNEDY: Boehm says he faced hours of interrogation, accused of being a spy. He was eventually put in a cell with four other foreigners. He says he received two pieces of bread a day and very little water. To his knowledge, the Egyptian officials never contacted his embassy or his family. But they would repeatedly pretend to offer him a phone call.

BOEHM: They'd be like, you want to talk to your family? Here's your phone. And then they'd give us a cigarette instead. And they'd do that several times a day. And they'd laugh. They'd joke about electricity; they'd joke about torture.

KENNEDY: While Boehm did not sustain physical abuse, he says signs of violence against prisoners were everywhere.

BOEHM: We saw blood - sticks with blood on them. And in interrogation rooms, you'd hear screams.

KENNEDY: Two days after he was detained, Boehm was taken to a different detention center where he met a U.S. Embassy official. That's because his friend had been able to inform his university. He was then transferred to another cell with about 30 other non-Egyptians, including Eritreans and Yemenis. He says some of them had injuries and said they were beaten by police.

Boehm was put on a plane the next day, and the State Department confirmed that he was detained and deported. He's still thinking about the thousands of Egyptians still held.

BOEHM: I know why I got out - because I have a powerful government behind me. It's just that people are still there and that the regime can do this.

KENNEDY: Hussein Baoumi, the Egypt researcher for Amnesty International, says this clampdown is different than other ones under Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

HUSSEIN BAOUMI: Not only in the scale or not only talking quantitatively but also in the means that were employed to arrest people, to detain them.

KENNEDY: He says Egyptian police have set up checkpoints where they demand to see what's in people's phones, like what happened to Boehm.

BAOUMI: In a sense, the Egyptian authorities are now trying to filter any sort of opponents or critics or people that would be critics from among the general population.

KENNEDY: Amnesty says some appear to have been detained randomly, including children. Egypt concedes that about a thousand people have been questioned.

So while Boehm is free, others aren't as lucky, like leading activist Alaa Abd El Fattah. He was already on probation after five years in prison. On September 29, he was rearrested and is now accused of spreading false news. His family says he has been beaten in prison. When his lawyer went to his interrogation, authorities arrested him, too.

Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEPSTREAM'S "THE LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Merrit Kennedy
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.