CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian youth released Friday after two years in detention for wearing a T-shirt with a slogan against torture described his imprisonment as "very cruel" and said one challenge he must immediately tackle was to grow accustomed again to being among people.
Mahmoud Mohammed Ahmed, 20, was freed from a Cairo police station in the morning, more than 12 hours after a Cairo court upheld another tribunal's order to release him, according to his brother and one of his lawyers. The prosecution had appealed the earlier ruling, they said.
Wearing a white T-shirt, matching pants and baseball cap, Ahmed stepped out of the station to a warm and noisy welcome by his brother, Tarek Mohammed Ahmed, and a small crowd of about 40 lawyers, rights activists and friends.
Mahmoud was 18 and a high school student when he was arrested on Jan. 25, 2014 — the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The day saw deadly street clashes between police and protesters. He was detained at a police checkpoint north of Cairo as he made his way home after taking part in street protests marking the occasion. Another youth accused in the same case, 24-year-old Islam Talaat, was also released Friday.
Police accused Mahmoud of taking part in unauthorized demonstrations, possession of explosives and paying money on behalf of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group to others to take part in protests. He was never formally charged, but the case against him remains pending despite his release.
When arrested, he was wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "A nation without torture," something that turned his case into a cause celebre for Egyptian rights activists campaigning for an end to police abuses. He also wore a scarf that bore the date of the start of the 2011 uprising: January 25.
His brother and one of his lawyers, Mukhtar Munir, have maintained that Mahmoud was tortured in the early stages of his detention and deprived of many of his rights. He had leg surgery in 2010 for a condition stemming from a bad childhood fall. In detention, the leg's condition deteriorated for lack of adequate medical attention, they said. He now limps and walks slowly, using a cane for support.
"My experience was very cruel," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "I put up with it because of my brother and everyone else who has been demanding my freedom. But, I am not a hero. I am nothing."
He said his first day in freedom filled him with "disbelief."
"Realistically, I am still in shock about everything that happened today. I feel like a stranger in my own home. I must learn to live with people again after I spent so much time alone," he said. He will soon undergo corrective surgery on his leg, rejoin school and, according to him, take an arts major in college.
Mahmoud's letters to friends and relatives smuggled out of prison and seen by the AP testify to both his young age and activism. They are adorned by drawings of Mickey Mouse, smiley faces or flowers. One letter to his brother says: "I am positive that the day will come when we will do everything without fearing prison or oppression." In another note, he wrote: "We will die when we stop dreaming."
His detention was part of the crackdown overseen by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi who the year before, as military chief, led the July 2013 ouster of Egypt's elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, following mass protests against his divisive rule.
The crackdown has primarily targeted Morsi's Brotherhood supporters but secular, pro-democracy activists have not been spared. Mahmoud's case drew the attention of rights groups at home and abroad, mostly because of his young age and the circumstances of his arrest.
Amnesty International in January said his detention was an "utter disgrace" and an "affront to justice."
"No one should be arrested or detained simply because of slogans on the T-Shirt or scarf they have chosen to wear, let alone imprisoned for two years and facing torture and other ill-treatment in detention," said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.