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'An Island In An Orgy Of Violence' -- A Firsthand Account Of Being Detained In Cairo

"Blindfolded, bound, and lying on the floor like the others, I wondered if my turn would come."
"Blindfolded, bound, and lying on the floor like the others, I wondered if my turn would come."
The sickening, rapid clicking sound of the electric shock 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.

LISTEN: Robert Tait speaks with RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz about his ordeal:

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.

Empty Flight

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.

Robert Tait on February 8 after his return to Prague
"These guys are journalists and you know what we're meant to do with journalists," an official said to a colleague. The camera was eventually returned, but the phone was sealed inside a box and impounded. The official was apologetic.

"I'm only doing my job. We have orders," he said. "I'm a customs officer, not a security man."

He took me to a room where I was shown a haul of equipment -- including seven television cameras -- confiscated from other journalists. I was not alone in being singled out.

Not a good start, but at least they hadn't turned us back, as we had feared. Nor had they found another satellite phone -- Abdelilah's -- in my backpack or my small Edirol recording machine, used for taping interviews.

Meeting our local fixer, Ahmed, in the arrivals hall, we began to feel optimistic. Things seemed to be looking up.

In fact, they were about to go rapidly downhill.

'Very Abnormal'

Heading downtown toward Tahrir Square, epicenter of the demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak, all was clearly not well. Tanks -- painted a desert sand color rather than khaki -- seemed to be placed at every main intersection. I asked Ahmed if this was normal.

"This is very abnormal. It's in response to the disturbances," he replied.

Equally abnormal were the checkpoints, where soldiers checked vehicle occupants' identities. We successfully passed several until, having almost reached downtown, we were stopped by several men -- some in police uniforms, most in plainclothes -- as we turned a corner. They swarmed around our car like bees around a honey pot, demanding to see our passports.

"Open your bag!" one ordered, pointing to my backpack on the floor. I did and he rummaged inside and quickly found the other satellite phone.

"What's this?" he asked, though he clearly knew. It was the only incriminating sign they needed that we were journalists, although they would surely have found others.

A plainclothes man with a mustache and a fat neck got in the back of our car and ordered our driver to follow the vehicle in front.

'We're Not Going Downtown'

We were taken to a nearby police station and told to wait outside. It was no problem, we were told, just security procedures. We hung around for what seemed an age while an officer in charge questioned Ahmed (Did he know any Palestinians? Are they members of Hamas?) and made several calls, apparently to superiors. They demanded our mobile phones, although I kept one, which happened to be out of charge. Then the same man jumped in our car again and we were ordered to follow the same vehicle. We changed direction and Ahmed said: "We're not going downtown." He sounded worried.

His tone changed to outright fear as we drove further away from the city center.

"I hope I don't get beaten up," he said. I felt guilty and had the sudden urge to comfort him but said nothing. I had dragged him into this. If what I witnessed subsequently is any guide, his fears may have been well-founded.

We came to an empty street and did a U-turn outside a vast building marked "Telecommunications" before stopping -- tellingly -- outside an even vaster complex next to it. It was forbidding-looking and unmarked but, given its location, almost certainly the base of Egypt's feared intelligence service, the Mukhabarat -- an organization headed, ultimately, by the country's newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, now tasked with negotiating a "peaceful transition" from Mubarak's rule, as demanded by the United States and other Western powers.

But our situation was too immediate -- and too grim -- for geopolitical considerations. Outside a giant door that resembled something out of a science-fiction film, we were ordered out of the car so that, as Ahmed explained to me, we could be blindfolded.

I thought of resisting or asking for an explanation: indignant Brit abroad demands the right to see. Good sense -- or cowardice -- prevailed. I allowed myself to be blindfolded before an episode of incongruous absurdity ensued. The driver needed to be paid 70 Egyptian pounds (about $12). I reached inside my pocket, felt for money, and handed over what I had.

'Mr. Robert, What Is Wrong?'

We were forced into another vehicle, driven a short distance, and herded into what felt like an outdoor courtyard. This heralded the first sensations of real terror. I was handcuffed and told to face a wall. Someone came from behind and thumped me in the side, not painfully but momentarily winding me. Then I was told to turn around and was asked -- in English -- where I was from.

"I'm British," I replied.

"Ah, yes, you are British," the voice hissed menacingly.

At that point I heard the first dreadful click-click-click of the electrocuting rattlesnake -- like the rats in Room 101 that terrorized Winston Smith in Orwell's "1984." I was sure I heard Ahmed screaming in pain and my previous sangfroid evaporated as fear took hold.

Already too hot from my European winter clothes, I broke into a cold sweat. I felt my legs buckle and thought I would vomit. I put my hands on my knees to steady myself and the same hissing voice -- I think -- said: "Mr. Robert, what is wrong."

"I feel really bad," I answered. He told me to sit down.

After that, I was treated with a strange solicitation. Ordered to stand, I was guided through a maze of corridors into a room where a different voice told me that he spoke English, "but not perfectly." Undoing my handcuffs, he ordered me to empty my pockets: "Don't leave anything."

Another man took off my wedding ring, watch, and belt while I was told to remove my boots, jacket, sweater, and trousers but nothing else -- a rare privilege according to Abdelilah, who was strip-searched.

'Chaos In Our Country'

Indeed, my treatment compared to his bordered on the regal. While I endured virtually no physical violence, he learned the limited value of his naturalized British nationality the hard way when his demand to see the British consul earned him a punch on the bridge of the nose.

"We know you Iraqi motherf***ers like to take it up the ass," he was told, after being threatened with rape. He took another punch to the back of his head for refusing to eat his first meal -- telling his captors it was "lousy." His plight could have been worse. Telling our captors he no longer had Iraqi citizenship, he was told he was lucky. Iraqi citizens get treated as badly as Egyptians, his guard explained.

"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.

Taken for my one and only trip to an English-speaking interrogator in the early stages of our captivity, my demand for an explanation evoked an explanation of sorts.

"It is necessary because of the chaos in our country," the unseen inquisitor answered.

"Are you throwing out all journalists?" I asked.

"No. It is not a question of being a journalist," he replied disingenuously. "With the chaos, all foreigners who come to our country, we need to know who they are."

By this time, he certainly knew who I was. I had told him my full career resume in copious detail and emphasized RFE/RL's funding by the U.S. Congress, in the belief that it would bring about a quick resolution. He told me that I would be released "after certain procedures" had been completed.

'Two Things On The Menu'

But it was to take another 24 hours or so, during which I bore blind but all-hearing witness to a thuggish sadistic violence. 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.

Indignity Upon Indignity

Throughout, I knew I had been accorded special status and should be thankful. But time passed agonizingly slowly and I wondered about the identities of my fellow captives. Were Abdelilah and Ahmed among them? Were they being abused while I was spared? Rubbing my head discreetly against a blanket, I found a way of peering under my blindfold so I that I could see almost half the room. Three men were in my line of vision, all kneeling with hands cuffed behind their backs. Mine were cuffed to the front. Two had full Islamist-style beards, possibly Muslim Brotherhood. I could not see Abdelilah and Ahmed.

Moreover, my treatment was gentle only in comparison to others'. Indignity was heaped upon indignity. "Sleep! Sleep!" I was repeatedly ordered. "In here, no speak. You understand," I was told whenever being moved to a new room. Frog-marched to the toilet without asking, I was ordered to urinate while sitting -- a practice distinctive to devout Muslim men. Deemed to be eating my tasteless lunch too slowly, pieces of meat were crudely crammed into my mouth. Some hotel! Periodically, my blindfold manipulations would be spotted and roughly corrected.

I lost track of time and my initial shock and bewilderment turned to fury. Why was I being held? How had this happened? How long would it continue? I began to have visions of being there for another week, until my scheduled return flight. Belligerence set in. A new solicitous English-speaking guide was assigned to me.

"When you need anything, you raise your hand and ask me," he said.

"I need to be released," I replied. "I want a good English speaker. I need to go to the airport."

Then suddenly, it was over.

'Mr. Robert, How Are You?'

Just as serious sleep was setting on for the first time, I was ordered to my feet and asked my number.

"Thirty-three," I said.

I was promptly guided down three stairs, hauled down a corridor, and pushed into a room. My blindfold was removed. I sensed this was a good sign but was determined not to be gracious. A smiling, chubby-faced man at a desk was smiling benignly at me.

"Mr. Robert, how are you?" he beamed.

"I'm very bad -- and very, very angry," I said.

"I know. But please understand. It is because of the emergency."

"F*** your emergency. It has nothing to do with me," I spat.

Mr. Chubby Face seemed both confused and amused.

"F*** my emergency? But you're going home. We're taking you to the airport. That is good news, no?"

Indeed, it was, and I decided not to quibble.

All my bags and possessions, including money, passport, phones, and laptop were brought and I signed for them. I looked at my watch. It was 5 p.m. I had been in detention for 27 hours! I was blindfolded again and ushered into a waiting vehicle. Shortly after the car drove off, the blindfold was removed and I saw Abdelilah was beside me. Contemptuous of a fellow Arab to the end, his captors had not told him he was being released.

As for Ahmed, our fixer, contacted by RFE/RL, he said he been released around the same time as we had been and had been "well-treated." Friends say he told them he had bruises on his body "from sleeping on the floor."

For us, the ordeal was almost over -- but not quite.

Rather than a waiting flight, we were being escorted to a holding facility for deportees where our bags and belongings were searched all over again and temporarily confiscated. We were held for 16 hours along with Egyptian families from Italy and Libya who had been refused entry to their homeland on suspicion of intending to join the demonstrations.

The facility was smoky, cockroach-infested and filthy. Comfortable sleep and a desperately needed wash were impossible. But at least we could see, speak, and use our hands. We were allowed to leave only the next morning at check-in time for the flight to Amsterdam, accompanied by a police officer who ordered local KLM staff to change our tickets without charge.

As we left, we bumped into another journalist from the BBC's Arabic Service. He had failed to make it through the airport. He was spared our tribulations. But he would be departing the country less informed than we.

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.

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