Canadian imprisoned in Egypt for years safely back in Toronto

Canadian imprisoned in Egypt for years safely back in Toronto

by Sue Jones
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Mohammed el-Attar, a dual Canadian and Egyptian citizen imprisoned in Egypt for nearly 15 years, landed safely at Toronto’s Pearson airport Friday morning. 

Mohammed El Attar

Mohammed el-Attar, a dual Canadian and Egyptian citizen, arrived back in Canada Friday after being arrested in Cairo in January 2007 during what he said was a vacation to see family. He spent almost 15 years in prison. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Mohammed el-Attar, a Canadian imprisoned in Egypt for nearly 15 years, landed safely at Toronto’s Pearson airport Friday morning. 

El-Attar, a dual Canadian and Egyptian citizen, was arrested after arriving in Cairo in January 2007 for what he said was a vacation to see family. He was 31 at the time. 

In Canada, el-Attar — also known by the name Joseph — worked as a bank teller. Egyptian officials claimed el-Attar used his position at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to obtain information on various accounts for Israel, which they alleged recruited him while he was living in Turkey in 2001.

El-Attar’s trial began in February 2007 and in April, he was convicted and swiftly sentenced to a 15-year prison term based on a confession he later said he made under duress because he’d been tortured.

“I was pressured psychologically and physically, so that I admit things that I didn’t say, and are totally opposite to the truth,” he said in 2007.

El-Attar said he was tortured

The bulk of Egypt’s case rested on the confession that el-Attar and human rights groups have maintained was tortured out of him. One of the last things el-Attar said publicly from his courtroom cell during his trial was that he had been electrocuted and forced to drink his own urine.

CBC News reported in 2015 that el-Attar was being held in a three-by-two-metre cell in Egypt’s Tora prison, notorious for its harsh conditions.

El-Attar was born in Egypt but fled the country to seek refuge in Canada, saying he faced persecution for his faith (born into a Muslim family, he had converted to Christianity) and because he is a gay man.

In 2015, Alex Neve of Amnesty International told CBC News those factors made el-Attar extremely vulnerable in Egypt.

“There’s every reason in the world for the Canadian government to be taking this case very seriously, and we’ve never seen any indication of that,” Neve said.

‘Many questions around this case’

As time went on, little information was coming to light about the status of the case, now retired CBC producer Stuart Einer said at the airport in Toronto ahead of el-Attar’s return.

So, in 2011, Einer decided to send el-Attar a hand-written letter through Canada’s consular services. Months went by, until finally Einer received a letter back. From there, the pair continued to write to each other regularly — their exchanges continuing for 11 years. 

Stuart Einer El Attar

In 2011, now retired CBC producer Stuart Einer, right, sent el-Attar a hand-written letter through Canada’s consular services. The pair continued to write each other regularly for 11 years. (CBC)

“His letters were a combination of frustration at feeling his case was not being taken seriously by anybody, be it in government, Egypt or Canada, and interspersed with the stories of just daily life in prison.”

On Thursday night, Einer received a letter from consular services with a message from el-Attar attached saying he’d been released.

“There’s many, many questions around this case and him,” Einer said, noting that all these years later, there’s not much more known about the case than there was 15 years ago. 

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