Zahra Hussein: My father is afraid of being forgotten

Daughter of jailed Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein says she fears her father would die in prison.

Al Jazeera Mahmoud Hussein
Al Jazeera's Mahmoud Hussein is in his 134th day of detention in Egyptian jails [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein is entering his 134th day of detention in Egyptian jails without formal charges.

Hussein, an Egyptian based in Qatar, was stopped, questioned, and arrested by Egyptian authorities in December 2016 after travelling to Cairo for a holiday. He has been accused of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos”.

Prior to working at the network’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, Hussein used to work in Egypt before Al Jazeera closed its bureau there in 2013.

Hussein’s family say that he is in poor physical and psychological condition, and have told Al Jazeera that there has not yet been a solid allegation on which his lawyer can build a sufficient defence.

Al Jazeera denies all accusations against Hussein and has demanded that Egypt unconditionally release Hussein and condemned his ongoing detention, which has been denounced by human rights and media organisations.

Hussein’s daughter, Zahra, a media and journalism student, spoke to Al Jazeera about the family’s experience with her father’s detention.

Al Jazeera: Do you think your father ever suspected that he would be arrested?

Zahra Hussein: I don’t know. My father always came back to Egypt knowing that he does not have any records with the national security. He always went back and forth without any problems, so I think he was sure that as long as he didn’t do anything – nothing would happen to him.

Al Jazeera: What was your initial response and the reaction of your family?

Hussein: My family and I saw my father handcuffed. He was surrounded by more than 40 police officers who stormed into our house, breaking everything and wrecking the furniture. We saw him being humiliated, so my family, especially my younger siblings, were in a state of shock.

My father is the eldest and he’s like the Mukhtar (the leader of the family). Every day since my father was arrested, the whole family – more than 70 people – visit us as though it is a funeral. I think our family will remain in this pain until my father gets out.

My worst nightmare is that my father might die in prison.

Al Jazeera: What was it like when he was first detained? Was he given an explanation? Were you expecting him to be released quickly?

Hussein: My father was held at the airport for more than 12 hours. When he arrived home, he said that he was faced with the usual questions – they asked where he worked, where he lived and for how long.

But then the questions turned into: What plans does Al Jazeera have for Egypt? My father said I have nothing to do with that, I work in the reporters’ section. So they let him go and he stayed home for two days, and then they asked him to come back to take his passport, which they had kept for 48 hours. When he went back to pick up his passport, the family was not expecting him to be away for too long. The whole family was gathered and came to welcome him because he had been away for months.

Late at night, when everyone went back to their homes, police forces came to search the house. They broke into four of our houses – both my uncles’ homes, who were also arrested, my grandparents’ home, and our house – they broke everything and found nothing.

He was forced to tell them [the security forces] about the place of the archives [Al Jazeera’s old Egypt bureau files], which they saw as a hidden treasure. They saw the files as a threat to national security, but they were only archives that he kept at my aunt’s house.

READ MORE: Mahmoud Hussein – Freedom of expression is valuable

When the police forces found the archives with dust all over, they had my father handcuffed, and forced him to speak before a camera – “I’m here at my sister’s house – this is an archive”. The police officers would then demand that he says that they [the archives] were a threat to national security.

They wanted him to say things they could use against him, but he did not. They recorded him over and over, about 20 times. They aired it across several Egyptian television channels. This was a huge violation, even if my father was a criminal, he’s still facing unproven charges. They haven’t sentenced him for anything.

My father was on national television, he was being labelled as a “terrorist”, television presenters were saying “we’re going to show you a terrorist that works for Al Jazeera”, before airing the video he was coerced into recording. He was then moved to Torah prison, but it took us a while to figure that out.

Al Jazeera: How was your mother’s reaction? How did you deal with it?

Hussein: We didn’t know how to act or deal with it. It was the first time ever that we had to face this kind of situation. It was my mother and us – no clue what to do and where to go. It was us against the unknown.

We were afraid they [the police] would come back, we were up all night waiting, expecting them to barge in, though we were assuring our younger siblings that it was OK and no one was coming back.

My grandmother, my father’s mother, says “I think I’m going to die, but I just need to die in the arms of my son”.

Al Jazeera: How often were you able to visit him?

Hussein: At first, we were not allowed to visit him, and when we went to prison, they still kept telling us “he’s not there”. But when I confronted the prison authorities and said, “Someone called me, I know he’s here” -though no one actually called me – they kept us waiting for five hours and then told us; “He was here, but I can’t allow you to see him. He does not have visitation rights yet”.

We returned every day, waiting from 7am until 3pm in line, under the sun. During the first few months of winter, we were worried about whether he was warm, and how he sleeps, whether he has a blanket. I was begging them to just let me give him a jacket, but no one responded.

More than one and a half months later, they let us see him, but our visits were always under the close watch of investigators, officers in high ranks, etc. We were never able to talk freely. He appeared very weak, very tired and had lost a lot of weight.

Al Jazeera: Can you give us a glimpse of what he’s going through inside prison?

Hussein: He’s alone in his cell, it’s dark and has neither electricity nor a bathroom. Whenever he needs to use the restroom he has to beg the guards to let him go. At first, he wasn’t allowed to leave his cell at all – but then they gave him an hour or two to walk between other cells, and eventually, was granted a daily hour in the sun.

He’s accompanied by a guard 24 hours a day and is prohibited from speaking to anyone.

My father has nine children waiting for his release. He is worried about our future and he’s afraid that he’ll stay in prison forever. He says “I’m old enough, but I’m scared that my last days would be in this place and no one will remember to say a word about me”.

As a journalist, he feels that the international community doesn’t care about an Egyptian journalist in an Egyptian prison. As a family, and in my own personal opinion, we can see that. International news outlets haven’t said a word, when in other cases they were defending journalism and press freedom.

I want someone to give me an explanation for that – what’s the difference in their minds, between my father and other journalists that they defended?

Al Jazeera: How has this affected you personally in terms of your future plans?

Hussein: My entire family was affected, I lost my job, my master’s opportunity. The only thing I was doing was asking how I can get to my father, asking what I can do to speed things up.

My sister is depressed and is in her final year of school. She won’t study and says, “What am I going to be in this country that takes fathers from their families for no reason?” At work, they told me that they can’t have me any more because my father was a “terrorist”, so they fired me.

Even though some of them believed that it was all a bunch of lies, they said, “We can’t afford to have your face and your name with us, especially that the Egyptian public opinion believes him to be one.”

READ MORE: Baher Mohamed – My 1,124 hours of solitary confinement in prison

Al Jazeera: Do you feel that you have a future in Egypt? 

Hussein: Right now, we feel that we’re exposed and not able to walk in the streets or study freely. I walk frightened that someone may point me out and say: “Is your father the one who appeared on national TV?”

If we left, where to? And if we stay, how will we manage? 

Al Jazeera: Do you think he could be released soon?

Hussein: We simply do not know. He is innocent and I firmly believe that he’ll be released eventually. But from what I see in Egypt, and due to the international media’s silence, my worst nightmare is that my father might die in prison.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera