A University of Washington doctoral student, Walid Salem, was researching Egypt’s judicial system.
A University of Washington doctoral student conducting research in Egypt has been detained on suspicion of “spreading false news” and “belonging to a terrorist group,” among other infractions, according to lawyers representing him.
Walid Salem, a UW political-science student and an Egyptian national who was researching the country’s judiciary, disappeared last week in Cairo, said attorney Mokhtar Mounir in a phone interview from the capital.
Four days later, Salem turned up in the very court system he was studying.
Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution handed Salem a 15-day precautionary detention order on Sunday, Mounir said.
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Under Egyptian law, suspects can be held for up to 15 days while matters are under investigation if a suspect is considered a danger to society or presents a flight risk. Those periods of detention can be extended, by law, for up to two years.
Prosecutors plan to question Salem on Tuesday, said Essam El-Eslambolly, a lawyer representing him.
“We will show the prosecution that Walid was conducting interviews as part of his academic research, which is not prohibited under Egyptian law,” El-Eslambolly said. “We’ve seen no evidence that he belongs to a terrorist group or that he’s spreading false information.”
Several other people, including journalists and activists, have been charged in Salem’s case, Mounir said. Among them is Wael Abbas, a prominent Arab Spring blogger.
Salem, too, has described himself as a former journalist. He wrote for several publications under the pen name Waleed Al-Shobakky, according to a UW biography page that is no longer available on the university’s website.
Salem’s arrest comes during a wave of detentions of journalists and activists in Egypt that has drawn scrutiny from Human Rights Watch and other organizations over concerns that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian government are seeking to oppress opposition voices.
Some analysts say the Egyptian government has increasingly tightened control of speech in Egypt and limited civil liberties as the president consolidates power.
“It’s a very difficult place to navigate. That freedom of expression is gone,” said Sarah Yerkes, a fellow in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Under the Mubarak regime, you could do research on the legal system,” she said, referring to Hosni Mubarak, who led the country from 1981-2011 before being deposed during the Arab Spring.
“Today … once you start digging into political processes and institutions, that throws up a red flag to the Sisi regime,” Yerkes said.
The U.S. administration considers Egypt a strong partner. However, Vice President Mike Pence expressed concern over “arrests of nonviolent activists in Egypt” in a call with the Egyptian leader a week ago, according to a White House statement.
Pence also told President al-Sisi he supported the release of more than 300 prisoners, including an American, from Egyptian jails.
Concern for Salem grew last week on the UW campus after a Facebook post appeared from Nour Farahat, a law professor in Egypt. Farahat, in a post that has since been removed from his Facebook page, wrote that Salem had met with him at his office.
Later, Salem’s family contacted Farahat to say that they could not find him, according to the post.
After meeting with the professor, Salem was picked up by plainclothes police officers, taken to an unknown location and blindfolded, said Mounir, the attorney. He was not assaulted, according to Mounir.
After his appearance before a state security prosecutor days later, Salem was taken to Tora prison, near Cairo, where he remains, Mounir said.
“As of now, there’s no justification for Walid’s arrest. Most of the individuals in this case don’t have a prior relationship with each other,” Mounir said. “We’re living through a period where we’ve seen a wave of these types of arrests for no clear reason.”
The UW has not publicly acknowledged the arrest of its student. Victor Balta, a UW spokesman, said he could neither confirm nor deny that Salem was, in fact, a student there.
A page featuring a photo of Salem that identified him as a graduate student had been visible on the university’s website until late last week. In emails shared with The Seattle Times, Salem’s colleagues indicated that university representatives believe the UW is not allowed to publicly acknowledge Salem as a student because of federal education privacy laws.
Salem apparently declined to allow the university to release information about him, according to the email.
El-Eslambolly said Salem has not been allowed to meet with family in Cairo, but did meet with a representative from his office who provided Salem with clean clothes.