Syrian authorities have arrested an Egyptian-American man and accused him of selling photos and videos of events in Syria and visiting Israel “in secret”.
Muhammad Bakr Radwan, 32, was shown on Syrian state television on Saturday making what the government called “preliminary confessions”. An article posted on the Syrian Arab News Agency website did not mention whether he was being charged with any crimes but said he had been in touch with a “Colombian person” who offered to pay 100 Egyptian pounds per photo and a price that “must have been higher” for videos.
Radwan holds both Egyptian and US citizenship, and a security officer reached at the US embassy in Damascus on Saturday night told Al Jazeera that the embassy was aware of Radwan’s situation and was “dealing with it through the proper channels”.
His arrest comes amid unprecedented nationwide protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled Syria since 2000 after succeeding his father, Hafez, who served as president for 29 years.
Radwan is the second American citizen to be arrested in Syria since the protests began. Pathik Root, a 21-year-old Middlebury College student, was arrested recently while attending a demonstration in Damascus, the Associated Press reported on Thursday.
Radwan’s friends and relatives, who first heard of his arrest on Saturday evening, called the accusations against him “ridiculous” and said Radwan has never visited Israel.
“The Syrian regime is just like all the other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that fabricate stories and arrest innocent people just to cling on to power,” Nora Shalaby, Radwan’s cousin, wrote on her blog.
Radwan hadn't been heard from since Friday, when he tweeted at 1:45pm, saying he was watching an anti-government protest at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Since then, his phone has been turned off.
“State security is everywhere in Syria, so my guess is that he was at the Umayyad Mosque and he was on his phone … and probably someone from state security saw him at the event and on his phone, and they grabbed him for it,” said Andrew Bossone, a friend of Radwan’s who is studying at the American University in Beirut.
Radwan was born in the United States but grew up in Saudi Arabia. His father worked at the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, said Tarek Shalaby, Radwan’s cousin and Nora’s brother. Radwan attended middle school and part of high school in Egypt before returning to Virginia and later enrolling in Texas A&M University.
After graduating, he worked in Saudi Arabia for a few years, saved money, then decided to take a year off to travel, spending most of his time in Central and Latin America, Shalaby said.
After his travels, Radwan eventually returned to Egypt and stayed for a few years before moving to Syria around nine months ago for a steady job at a petroleum services company based in Damascus. His father sits on the board of directors, Bossone said.
Radwan, with his US passport, wide-ranging travels and American-accented Arabic, probably presented an “ideal” catch for Syrian security forces eager to point to spies and foreign instigators as the source of the popular unrest in their country, Shalaby said.
“He looks very Egyptian, he has very green eyes, and so a lot of ignorant people will see him and think, ‘This is a typical Israeli,’” he said. “He fits perfectly with a plot about foreign agents.”
The government’s accusation about Radwan’s Colombian connection is probably an easily explained mistake, Shalaby said.
During Egypt's uprising in late January and early February, Shalaby received numerous calls from Mario Sanchez, a Colombian radio news reporter. On Monday, Sanchez called and asked Shalaby if he had any contacts in Syria. Shalaby offered to email Radwan and pass on the request.
Radwan responded to Sanchez and offered to tell him as much as he could about the protests. The officers who arrested Radwan probably saw the correspondence with Sanchez, Shalaby said.
“So basically, those sons of _______, they probably had him open his email, because they can access his email on his phone very easily, he has an Android,” he said.
But Shalaby dismissed the accusation.
“So then they made up the story that he takes pictures and gets 100 pounds. He easily makes 10,000 pounds a month, he’s not going to be taking pictures with his cell phone,” he said. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
Radwan often traveled to Egypt to visit friends and family, and he was there in January when the demonstrations began. He was a regular at a Tahrir Square encampment, started by Shalaby, that became known as “Freedom Motel," and he didn’t leave until after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
(Radwan, right, at "Freedom Motel" in Tahrir Square)
But Radwan isn’t an activist, Bossone said: “He just works in Syria, he’s politically aware, he’s always reading articles and up to date on current events. He’s someone who’s passionate about what’s happening in the world today.”
Bossone visited Syria last weekend and traveled with Radwan. There was no sign of any security officers following or watching them, he said.
Radwan emailed Shalaby recently to tell him that he was fine and that almost all of the news that was emerging from south, where violent clashes between protesters and security forces have claimed dozens of lives, was coming through personal contacts, since journalists have been mostly kept away.
"He's not the kind of guy who would take part in a Syrian demonstration," Shalaby said. "He would tweet about it, he would go check it out, take a couple of photos and tell people about it. But he understands that this is a fight that Syrians need to fight."
Nobody knows what will happen to Radwan, whether the security forces will abuse him, or whether they’re intent on detaining him for long.
Shalaby said he hopes they’ll make a deal – put him on a plane to Egypt with a promise that he’ll never return.
“They’re just going to see that he’s a guy who will not cause any harm, he’s incapable of that,” Shalaby said. “I know that once any of these Syrian [officers] spend more than an hour with him, they’re going to end up liking him.”