The Syrian government detained a dual Egyptian-American citizen during protests in Damascus Friday and accused him of fomenting unrest as part of a foreign plot to undermine the country’s stability.
Mohamed Radwan, 32, was at an anti-government protest outside the Umayyad Mosque in the capital city last week when he was detained and taken to an undisclosed location, according to family members. He later appeared on Syrian state television in what seemed to be a forced confession, admitting that he had “visited Israel in secret” and that he had “received money from abroad in exchange for sending photos and videos about Syria,” according to the official Syrian news agency.
Family members interviewed by Need to Know Monday said they had heard few details about his detention, including where he was being held and why. “The Syrians are being extremely tight-lipped about this,” Tarek Radwan, Mohamed’s brother, said in an interview from Washington, D.C. “No one has had access to him. We don’t know where he’s being held, or who’s holding him. So it’s very worrisome.”
The arrest and forced confession appeared to be part of a coordinated propaganda campaign by the Syrian government to discredit the protests as being the result of a foreign plot. Traveling to Israel is illegal in Syria, which considers the Jewish state an enemy.
In the family’s first direct contact with the Syrian government, Mohamed’s father, Abobakr Radwan, was intercepted by a Syrian state security official Monday and asked to come to the Syrian interior ministry to file a petition for his son’s release. When Abobakr arrived, he was asked to provide extensive biographical information about Mohamed but was told he could not see him. “It seemed more like a fishing expedition for information about our family,” Tarek Radwan said.
Tarek called his brother a “citizen journalist” who was born in the United States and raised in Egypt. He moved back to the U.S. to attend high school, and studied engineering at Texas A&M University before returning to Egypt to help with his father’s business.
He had been using his Twitter feed to keep journalists and others informed about the unrest in Egypt and Syria, and was taking pictures on his phone at the time of the protests in Damascus, which is likely what attracted the attention of state security officials.
“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing,” Tarek Shalaby, Mohamed’s cousin, said in a phone interview from Cairo. “He was at the demonstration at Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and he was taking pictures with his cell phone. So that was enough for them to, in fact, feel that he’s a bit of a threat.”
Shalaby said his cousin had been living in Syria for about nine months at the time of his arrest, but had flown back to Egypt in January to participate in the pro-democracy demonstrations there. “He was at Tahrir Square every day,” Shalaby said. “Just like many Egyptians, politically aware or not, he was very active during the revolution.”
Shalaby said that both American and Egyptian officials in Syria were working to gain information about Mohamed’s status, as well as the possibility of his release. Shalaby and other relatives of Mohamed have also been raising awareness of his case online, through Facebook and Twitter, and are planning a rally in front of the Syrian embassy in Egypt on Wednesday. “A lot of people have been calling in. There’s been a lot of pressure,” Shalaby said.
The Syrian government, however, has been unresponsive.
“The Syrians are not making official statements whatsoever. In fact we can’t even tell where he is or what exactly is the government agency responsible,” Shalaby said. “There hasn’t been any communication from their end.”
Mohamed’s status as a citizen of two foreign countries, Tarek added, likely makes him a valuable prisoner, enabling the Syrian government to paint the protests as part of a foreign plot to stir instability in the country: “To find him a dual national with a slight accent to his Arabic, with green eyes, it probably worked very nicely into the Syrian view that the protests are foreign-instigated.”