'Victims of injustice' in post-revolution Egypt speak out

Story highlights

  • Maikel Nabil was jailed by military tribunal for criticizing Egyptian army in a blog post
  • He was freed to celebrate the first anniversary of revolution and in time for release of film about his case
  • Nabil is one of five stories of injustice featured in the film "Back to the Square"
  • Other stories include convict asked to fight revolutionaries and a girl subjected to "virginity test"
After 302 days behind bars -- and 130 days on hunger strike -- Maikel Nabil is savoring his freedom and his food.
Nabil, 26, was jailed after being convicted by an Egyptian military tribunal in March last year for writing a blog post and Facebook comments criticizing the country's military rulers who took over from ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
He was released on January 24, one of 1,900 prisoners pardoned by Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, before the first anniversary of the start of Egypt's revolution.
By chance, Nabil was also released in time for the premiere of "Back to the Square," a film about life in post-Mubarak Egypt, featuring Nabil's brother Mark campaigning for his release.
"Back to the Square," by director Petr Lom, premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival on January 29 and will be the opening film at the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague, Czech Republic in March.
Nabil's ordeal was one of five stories in the film, which also followed a 15-year-old boy who was almost killed in Tahrir Square on the Day of the Camel during the revolution, when pro-Mubarak supporters on horses and camels clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators.
Also featured: An ex-convict who says he was forced to fight protesters in Tahrir Square; a female protester who was subjected to a virginity test; and a woman who says she was arrested and told to testify against her husband.
"As I collected stories it was clearer and clearer that there was a continuing injustice and lack of human rights that seemed to be the most urgent thing to be tackled," Lom said.
"Up until the end of last summer, most of the coverage suggested the country had already transformed, but it seemed to be that hadn't really happened."
He said all the characters he filmed were victims of injustice in post-revolutionary Egypt.
"The film has a theme of the loss of innocence, young people growing up and seeing reality and how it corresponds to their young dreams," Lom said.
In a telephone interview, shortly after his release, Nabil said, "I want my voice to be heard and I'm happy that is happening. However, I can't say I'm pleased to be released because I shouldn't have been jailed from the beginning. I haven't done anything wrong, I haven't committed any crimes, I have just written my opinions."
He added: "The army should be tried for its human rights violations, not me. I can be called back to prison at any time, so I'm not really free. They have the material to send me back to jail.
But I will continue to speak out. I'm still shouting very loudly."
A government spokesman denied Nabil's accusations of ill-treatment and said the blogger was suffering from disorientation as a result of his solitary confinement. The government has also repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses.
Nabil went on hunger strike while in jail to protest his trial by military tribunal, which he described as a piece of "theater" in which he was unable to defend himself.
He was able to sustain his hunger strike for 130 days by drinking water, milk and juice some days. Some days he had nothing at all.
Overall, he had nothing to eat or drink on 10 days, 39 days he had only water, and 81 days of drinking milk and juice, Nabil said.
"I used hunger strike as a tool of nonviolent struggle to protest against my trial by military tribunal.
"It was my first experience of hunger strike and I was discovering my body and its ability to resist hunger. The hunger strike was effective because it showed people that I was ready to die for my freedom," Nabil said.
"People inside and outside of Egypt took interest in my safety and my life.
"People who refused to defend me changed their mind after my hunger strike.
"I became very, very sick, and suffered from problems with my heart and liver."
Nabil ended the hunger strike on December 31, several weeks before learning he was to be released.
"I ended the hunger strike because of the number of letters I received from activists all over the world. They asked me to stay alive for them to keep my knowledge to fight. These people loved me and wanted me to stay alive.
"The other reason I stopped was because I felt the new parliament in Egypt could make a change."
Egypt's lower house of parliament took over legislative power on January 23 after elections late last year, with 70% of seats taken by Islamist parties. Elections for the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, will be completed next month. Presidential elections are set for June.
Nabil continued to write nearly 80 articles while in prison and smuggled them out with friends, who published them on the internet.
Nabil said he learned of his pardon from news reports three days before his release.
"I didn't believe it or trust that it would happen until I was at home with my family and friends," he said.
Petr Lom visited Nabil a month after his arrest while filming "Back to the Square," although he was unable to film in the prison.
"It sent shivers down my spine to meet such an extraordinarily courageous young fellow," Lom said. "He didn't mind being in prison for standing up for what's right."
Lom spent several months filming Nabil's brother Mark as he campaigned to raise awareness and support for his release.
Mark Nabil traveled to Rotterdam with Lom for the premiere of the film. He told the The Daily Star, Lebanon: "Maikel was against the way the army was taking over the revolution. He knew that nothing would change if the army took over."
A month after ending his hunger strike, Nabil said he is fully recovered and has regained the weight he lost.