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Drexel student tells of ordeal after arrest in Egypt

Sleepless, disoriented, accused of throwing firebombs at Egyptian police, Glenside native Gregory Porter, 19, didn't know whom to trust when he appeared in a Cairo courtroom last month on charges he says were false.

Greg Porter, with attorney Theodore "Ted" Simon, was held with two other students. (E Hille / Staff Photographer)
Greg Porter, with attorney Theodore "Ted" Simon, was held with two other students. (E Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

Sleepless, disoriented, accused of throwing firebombs at Egyptian police, Glenside native Gregory Porter, 19, didn't know whom to trust when he appeared in a Cairo courtroom last month on charges he says were false.

In court, a man told him in accented English that he was on the legal team hired by Porter's parents.

"Shane Victorino," he said, "is your sister's fiance!"

An old family joke because Porter's sister, Hillary, is so in love with the Phillies star.

"When he said that," Porter told The Inquirer in his first extended interview, "I knew he was [sent by] my family."

Attorney Theodore "Ted" Simon, who headed the legal effort from Philadelphia, had asked his Cairo contact to use the joke for authentication.

For Porter, a Drexel University sophomore who studied Arabic, Islam, and Egyptian history on a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo, the encounter was one of the surreal and scary moments that began Nov. 21 with his arrest in Tahrir Square.

About 10 o'clock that night, Porter and some friends went to the heart of the massive gathering, where demonstrators maintained a medical clinic, food center, and area for bloggers. A channel was kept open for ambulances.

Peaceful most of the time, Tahrir demonstrations turned violent when stone-throwing protesters faced off against police using shotguns, rubber bullets, and tear gas.

"We were just there to watch," said Porter, who has a deep interest in the Middle East. "A lot of people think study abroad and think France. ... I think Egypt and Jordan."

About 2 a.m. the students found themselves near a street where demonstrators were collecting stones. "We could see in the distance two armored vehicles," Porter said.

Wearing a dark sweater and cargo pants, he stood behind the demonstrators, at the back of the pack.

"When [police] fired something into the crowd, the first thing I thought: Get off the street," Porter said. "The quickest way was to the right," even though most demonstrators ran left.

As Porter caught his breath on a side street, some Egyptian men asked in English if he needed help getting out.

The next thing he knew, three of them were frog-marching him one block to a cluster of police.

"That's when they hit me for the first time," he said.

He was pushed to the ground and kicked for several minutes. His lip split. His legs later bloomed with bruises. He lost a sneaker.

Police fastened his hands behind his back with a plastic zip tie. AUC foreign-exchange students Derrik Sweeney, 19, of Georgetown University, and Luke Gates, 21, of Indiana University, were also arrested.

The three were taken to a nearby building, possibly the Ministry of Interior. The captors had pulled the prisoners' shirts over their heads so they could not see.

In a waiting room, they were forced to sit on the floor facing the wall. If they talked, a guard slapped them.

Porter thought about the AUC orientation in August, when a U.S. Embassy official said there would be no recourse if they were arrested.

"I thought this is really not good," said Porter. "But I wasn't overly panicked. I was trying to keep my cool."

Then the interrogators made a videotape, posing the prisoners behind bottles they had allegedly used for Molotov cocktails. Each prisoner was told to state his name and nationality.

"They [accused us of] throwing things at police. ... 'You did this. Do you confess to it? ... Your embassy is going to think you are terrorists.' ... They were trying to get us to admit to something on camera," Porter said.

After a sleepless night, the three were taken to a police station. Their 4-by-6-foot cell had an inch of water on the floor.

Tuesday, Nov. 22, AUC administrators discovered what had happened and notified Porter's mother, Nancy Hansen, and the local U.S. Embassy.

In Philadelphia, Hansen hired Simon, whose long list of high-profile clients includes Amanda Knox, the U.S. exchange student whose murder conviction in the death of her roommate in Italy was recently overturned.

Simon called a prominent lawyer he knows in Egypt, who dispatched staffers to Porter's side.

Passing along letters attesting to Porter's good character, Simon painted a picture of "a good kid, whose history would not support anything like" the charges against him.

Meanwhile in Cairo, interrogators told Porter he would be in prison for 25 to 35 years. They tried to get him to say demonstrators had paid him to assault police.

Then "the three of us were put in a cell with six or seven badly beaten Egyptians. A couple had bloodstained shirts. We saw a guy whose arm was clearly broken. I was beaten, but nowhere near the level of these people," Porter said.

"The first night there was no record of us" in the system, he said. "But once we were put on the record, they stopped beating us." Such a nicety doesn't apply to Egyptian prisoners, he said.

Wednesday, an embassy official came to their cell and said they would have to give statements to the chief state's attorney, who would decide whether to prosecute.

Porter was allowed to call his mother, a registered nurse at Drexel. She assured him of the efforts to free him.

The scariest moment, he said, was when he was driven to the prosecutor's office to give his statement. Without explanation, the vehicle went to a military base and parked.

"Military trials are really bad. We don't have a chance if they transfer us," he said. "I was close to losing my cool."

But it was a detour to pick up more prisoners; 15 minutes later they were back en route.

After Porter and his friends made their statements, they were given a dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, served in the prosecutor's office.

On Thursday, Porter's "best Thanksgiving ever," a three-judge panel denied the government's motion to extend detention and granted immediate release.

Porter was scheduled to fly home to Philadelphia in the early hours of Saturday. AUC officials had packed his belongings. They even delivered a pair of shoes.

There was a final hiccup when Lufthansa officials, seeing Porter arrive in police custody, didn't want to let him on the plane. They relented on the condition he take no carry-on baggage.

Arriving Saturday, he said he was "thankful to be back in Philadelphia."

Next semester Porter goes back to Drexel. For the rest of this semester he will follow AUC courses online. He has to write a final paper for his Egyptian government class. When a reporter asked if any topics came to mind, he just smiled.