Yasser Ahmed Albaz’s last message to his family was, under any other circumstance, nothing to cause alarm.
It was February 18. Family Day. He was at the airport in Cairo waiting for a flight home after almost two months away for work.
After checking in his luggage, Yasser told his family he was “put on the side” by airport staff and was still waiting for his passport. He later let them know he was going to miss his flight. Then he told them he loved them.
“That was the last direct communication we had with him,” his daughter Amal Albaz told HuffPost Canada.
Yasser sent one more message to a friend, explaining that he was being taken away by state security.
Albaz said she immediately reported the case to Canada’s emergency consular services line. She later learned her father was being subjected to “general questioning” but was allowed to have a lawyer present.
“The lawyer himself is very shocked,” she said. “He said this makes absolutely no sense. He has no idea why this is happening as well.”
For almost one week, the family had no idea where Yasser was. Then the nightmare began.
The lawyer told them Yasser has not been charged with anything but that he was being detained and taken to Egypt’s Tora prison complex, a notorious facility often used to detain political prisoners. It’s the same place where Muslim Brotherhood supporters were held after the Egyptian military overthrew Mohamed Morsi — a senior figure in the organization and the country’s first elected president — back in 2013. Many who are suspected of or charged with terrorism are also held there.
“It all feels so very surreal, but at the same time it feels like a nightmare that we’re not waking up from,” Albaz said.
Tora prison has been criticized by human rights advocates for its treatment of prisoners. Its reputation has become so grim that its maximum security wing has been nicknamed the “scorpion.”
According to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch, inmates in that part of the complex aren’t given any beds or mattresses, sleeping on “concrete platforms” instead. They don’t receive any hygienic items and are often denied medical care and visits by family members, friends and lawyers.
On Wednesday, Albaz said in a statement that Canadian officials have located her father, who is in a “state of shock.”
“He has been sick for several days and the embassy has provided him with medication. He is forced to sleep on the concrete floor during Egypt’s winter, without a blanket or even a pillow. When family members tried providing these basic necessities to the prison, they were denied,” she wrote.
Albaz said her father, an Oakville, Ont.-based engineer who regularly travels for work, regularly enters and leaves Egypt with no hassle. The family was there last summer for her sister’s engagement party.
“It’s still very unclear why they’re holding him,” Albaz said. “The only thing we can think of is this is a huge mistake. There’s definitely a huge misunderstanding. My father is not politically active, he has no political affiliations. Anything that could be kind of a trigger simply isn’t there.”
While Albaz and her family have no idea what kind of conditions their father is being held in, Tarek Loubani says he can “virtually guarantee” what the experience looks like.
The emergency physician at the London Health Sciences Centre knows first-hand of the horrific conditions at Tora prison. He was detained there for almost seven weeks along with fellow Canadian, filmmaker John Greyson in 2013.
Loubani and Greyson were in Cairo on their way to Gaza to produce a film. But while they were in the Egyptian capital, the deadly Rab’a protests broke out. Hundreds were killed in a brutal crackdown on demonstrators.
Loubani said he tried to tend to some of the wounded while Greyson filmed what was happening, but the two were later accused of killing a police officer, assisting the Muslim Brotherhood, carrying explosives and even simultaneously being informants for Hamas, the CIA and the Mossad.
“When I hear that nobody’s been allowed to see Yasser for a week, I can virtually guarantee you I know exactly what happened there, because that’s what happened with us, that’s what happened before us, that’s what happened after us,” he told HuffPost.
Loubani said on the first day of his detention he and other inmates were made to wait in a van in the scorching mid-August heat.
“They wanted us there, boiling alive.”
He said when the van’s doors opened, two teams of police officers holding clubs were outside.
Loubani said everyone got hit.
Those who could run away fastest got hit less. Anyone who fell while fleeing got hit the most.
Before entering the prison, Loubani said they were all made to wait in a room. The guards asked for the “Canadian” — Greyson.
Loubani said his colleague tried to say he is Canadian, hoping it would protect him somehow. It didn’t. The two were severely beaten, Loubani said.
“There was snot coming out of my nose, there was blood coming down. I was sweating. I was yelling. It was a terrible experience.”
There have also been reports of inmates at Tora being denied medical care. Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a Canadian resident who served as an adviser to Morsi, was placed in the prison for almost two years. He suffered spinal injuries while there and was only allowed access to a hospital after a year, according to the Toronto Star.
“The sanitary conditions were terrible and I had skin and stomach problems. My health was deteriorating,” Al-Qazzaz told paper in 2016.
A ‘Kafkaesque, brutal system’
Loubani said he and Greyson were allowed to be examined by a doctor after almost a week in Tora only because they were Canadian citizens.
“Nobody else got that. Nobody was allowed out of the cell for two weeks.”
The doctor documented that Loubani had broken ribs and noted he was concussed, that he was “pissing blood.” Greyson, Loubani said, was beaten so badly that he could almost make out a number “6” on his back from one of the guard’s boots.
“When we left, we left 50 days in, nobody had yet been charged,” Loubani said, adding that the time they spent in Tora was an “investigation period,” which is how authorities justified not laying any charges.
He said this was a pivotal time for Canadian authorities to intervene and secure their release.
“That’s why it was so key for us to get out before we were charged, because if we were charged then you’re part of this kind of Kafkaesque, brutal system. There’s not much that you can really do to interrupt it.”
Albaz echoed that concern. She said although Canadian authorities in Egypt are working to track down and visit her father, she wants more from the federal government at home.
Asked if Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were intervening in the case, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada only told HuffPost the government is aware of a Canadian detained in Egypt and noted that it was providing consular services.
“I’m not hearing any signals of urgency or escalations to the minister or higher, which is something that we need urgently,” Albaz said.
“I need my father out of prison and on a plane back home. Only [Freeland] can do that.”
Loubani said the federal government needs to apply political pressure and make it clear that there will be “consequences” if Yasser is not given his basic human rights. He said the former Conservative government took this type of approach when he was detained.
He said he understands how much Albaz’s family is suffering, and he can certainly understand what her father could be going through. But most of all, he hurts knowing that Yasser’s case is not unique.
“You know what the worst thing about it is? This is happening to thousands of Egyptians,” he said.
“And I know that we can’t change that or stop that, but we can in this one case, and we have to in this one case.”
Albaz said more than 3,000 emails have been sent to Freeland and other MPs urging the government to escalate its response and secure Yasser’s release. Loubani said that type of collective pressure on the government is crucial.
“We got out of because of the work of thousands of Canadians who made phone calls, who wrote letters and who signed petitions,” Loubani said.
“Sometimes it feels as though those efforts are in vain, but I’m free. And [Greyson] is free. And that would have never happened without every single person who signed, who called, who fought, who asked, who demanded. Not only is it a way, it’s probably the only way that this man comes home safely to his family.”