Vt. collegian recounts detention in Syrian jail

AP News
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Posted: Apr 05, 2011 8:35 PM
Vt. collegian recounts detention in Syrian jail

An American college student who was arrested on a Syrian street after he pulled out his smartphone near a demonstration and then spent two weeks in jail told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he was interrogated, threatened with violence and packed so tightly with other prisoners that everyone had to sleep on their sides on the floor.

Pathik "Tik" Root, 21, said Tuesday that Syrian intelligence agents suspected he was a CIA agent or a journalist but that he escaped the worst of the "zoo animals" treatment that prisoners were subjected to.

Freed on Friday and looking no worse for the wear, the soft-spoken Root recounted his ordeal in an interview in his home in Ripton, Vt., near Middlebury College, where he is a junior majoring in international politics and economics.

Root, a U.S. citizen who was born in India and adopted as an infant, said he had been studying Arabic in Damascus and was snatched March 18 after he pulled out his BlackBerry about 100 yards from a demonstration.

He believes it was his passport, which had stamps from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, that got him in trouble, not the short video he took with his phone or a still photo on his camera showing a man with a flag.

He told the AP he was taken to a jail, put in a 3-foot-by-7-foot isolation cell alone _ initially _ and interrogated by agents three times during his incarceration. He lived on potatoes and bread and was later moved to a 10-foot-by-12-foot cell packed with other prisoners.

He wasn't harmed, he says, but heard others being beaten. Some told him they had received electric shocks.

"I heard the violence and harm, and I heard stories," he said. "They did beat the prisoners pretty badly. I did end up seeing blood after the fact. And I did hear stories about electrocution."

Once he realized they weren't going to beat him, he said his worst fear was that they would turn him into a political token and put him on Syrian television to confess to being what he wasn't _ a CIA agent.

He said the other prisoners ranged from a young boy no more than 14 to men in their 60s and 70s. They told stories about their alleged crimes, but Root said he wouldn't repeat them in the interview for fear of retribution against those still in custody.

"Not a single person knew when they were going to leave. People had been there from a week to a year, with zero information," he said. "I think mentally, that was the hardest part."

His path never crossed with another American detained when anti-government protests began breaking out last month. Mohammed Radwan, a 32-year-old engineer from Austin, Texas, was suspected of selling photos and video of demonstrations, the Syrian state news agency reported.

Both men were released April 1, after diplomatic intervention by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others. On Tuesday, they talked to one another via Skype.

He wouldn't reveal what they talked about. "It was very nice to talk to him," Root said.

Root said he didn't believe he actually was being released until he set foot on U.S. soil.

"I always thought that something was going to go wrong," he said.