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Freed student uses Twitter to demand translator's release

  • Story Highlights
  • James Buck, Mohammed Maree were detained in Egypt at a protest
  • Buck used microblog site to help get himself out of prison, couldn't help Maree
  • Buck is now devoting his time to trying to free Maree
  • Lawyers: Maree told us he has been electrically shocked, beaten
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By Mallory Simon
CNN
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(CNN) -- An American student who used a microblog site to free himself from an Egyptian jail is harnessing the Web's power again -- this time to demand the release of his translator.

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Mohammed Maree told his lawyers that he has been tortured while detained by Egyptian authorities.

James Karl Buck was released from a Mahalla jail after sending a one-word blog post from his cell phone through the Twitter Web site. The message -- "Arrested" -- alerted all of his friends on the site of his detention.

Twitter, a social-networking blog site, allows users to send status updates, or "tweets," from cell phones, instant messaging services and Facebook in less than 140 characters.

That message helped free Buck, whose college hired a lawyer for him, but it didn't help free Mohammed Maree.

Now, Buck feels it's his responsibility to try to free him.

"He's only in prison ... because he wanted to help me," Buck said. "Now I've got to repay the favor."

Buck, a graduate student then working on a photography project in Egypt for his master's thesis, met Maree, a 23-year-old Egyptian veterinary student, in Mahalla. Maree offered to help Buck as he photographed local anti-government protests over low wages and rising food prices. See Buck describe what he saw and filmed during the protests »

The two were at a protest April 7, when families demanding the government's help began throwing Molotov cocktails and setting tires on fire, Buck said.

Buck said that as he and Maree fled, they were stopped by police and detained, along with several journalists and bloggers who were covering the protest.

Both men were released hours later, but detained again shortly after leaving the detention facility.

That's when Buck and Maree were separated -- Buck was released, and his translator was moved to another police station. Now, attorneys say Maree still hasn't been charged and remains in prison.

Back in the United States, Buck has taken it upon himself to further capitalize on the power of his Twitter network, which is now more than 570 followers strong, to help free his translator and friend.

Fueled by the gnawing guilt of leaving Maree behind, Buck set out to enlist all of the help he could in hopes of sparking a movement for his release.

He began setting up a virtual online command post to demand Maree's release. He used everything from Twitter updates, blog posts on his own Web site to an electronic petition signed by more than 900 people. Video See how Twitter works »

When he first arrived home, Buck struggled to balance preparing for his finals and helping Maree. Eventually, all the work took its toll -- he collapsed and could barely get out of bed -- but he knew he had to press on.

"It's absolutely an unconditional moral imperative," Buck said of getting Maree released. "You just don't leave your men behind."

Buck says that since returning to California nearly eight weeks ago, he has replayed in his mind the minute he walked out of the detention facility in Mahalla.

"I should have refused, I should have laid down on those steps," he said. "I should have demanded not to move until they freed him, too."

The biggest problem, Buck said, was a lack of information. When Buck was released from the jail in Mahalla, he was told Maree would be freed soon after. But days later, Maree's family told CNN they had neither seen nor heard from him since he had been detained.

"He disappeared, and there was no information, and we thought he might be dead," Buck said.

Attiya Shakran, press counsel for the Egyptian Consulate in San Francisco, California, told CNN in April that Maree had been released April 13. In a recent phone conversation, Shakran said he meant that Maree had been released once, but not for good.

Shakran told CNN he had no more information about Maree's whereabouts or whether he was still in the custody of Egyptian authorities. CNN could not get any information from the Egyptian government about Maree.

However, lawyers from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Egypt say they know Maree is still in prison because they have visited him. They said that during their visits, Maree said he had been tortured.

Since Maree's initial detention, he has been transferred to three prisons throughout Egypt, his attorney said. Several other journalists and bloggers, who were detained at the same time and in the same facilities as Maree, have been released and are now at home, according to local media reports.

Maree said he has been beaten and electrically shocked throughout his detention by Egyptian authorities, Khaled Ali, a law center attorney, told CNN.

"During this period he felt he was on the brink of death," Ali said in an e-mail.

Ali said the warrant for Maree's arrest accused him of "trying to change the regime." Initially, officials decided to release Maree, Ali claims, but Interior Minister Habib al-Adly used emergency law to keep him imprisoned.

Several human rights and journalism activist groups have taken up Maree's cause after Buck contacted them.

"Maree's open ended detention without charge, due process or even official acknowledgement about his whereabouts raises serious concerns about his safety," The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a letter to al-Adly. "We urge you to put an end to Maree's unjust detention and to ensure that he is released at once."

As Buck continues to push for his friend's release, he is also looking to help other journalists in danger while traveling overseas. Buck said he is discussing with organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch the creation of a Twitter network that would allow those in trouble to directly let someone know if they were in danger.

"If I could have Twittered to CPJ for Mohammed that day ... things might have gone differently," Buck said.

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Buck hasn't always had unwavering faith in social networking. He used to shy away from Web sites like MySpace, Twitter or Facebook, but his detention overseas and networking online for Maree have changed his mind for good.

"What this shows us is that we the people can harness an incredible power against oppressors by simply communicating with each other," Buck said. "It shows the power in unity through technology."

CNN's Housam Ahmed and Aneesh Raman in Cairo and Tracy Doueiry contributed to this report.

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