Missouri student talks about experience in custody in Cairo

Sunday, November 27, 2011 | 5:31 p.m. CST; updated 11:41 a.m. CST, Monday, November 28, 2011

An American student arrested with two others during protests in Cairo said they were threatened with guns, hit and forced to lay for hours in a near fetal position in the dark with their hands behind their backs.

"They said if we moved at all, even an inch, they would shoot us," said Derrik Sweeney, a 19-year-old Georgetown University student from Jefferson City. "They were behind us with guns."

The students flew home Saturday after an Egyptian court ordered their release two days earlier. The three had been spending the semester studying abroad at American University in Cairo, which is near Tahrir Square, where a new wave of protests began more than a week ago.

Protesters have been calling for the nation's military leaders to hand power back to a civilian government before the landmark parliamentary elections scheduled to start Monday. At least 43 protesters have been killed since Nov. 19, and 2,000 have been wounded, most of them in Cairo.

Sweeney spoke to The Associated Press by telephone after family greeted him at the airport in St. Louis and then again Sunday by Skype. He also appeared on CBS' Early Show on Monday.

He said the evening of his arrest on Nov. 20 started peacefully in the square, which was "abuzz with ideas of democracy and freedom." He and other students later wandered through the streets, ending up in a large group of protesters gathered outside the Interior Ministry.

"There were two tanks and a lot of policemen with weapons, and while these protesters were yelling and a lot of chants, and I think some of them in front of us might have been throwing stones," he said. "Eventually the police shot back something."

The students fled to an area that seemed calmer. There, they were approached by four or five "plain clothes Egyptians" who offered to lead them to safety, Sweeney said. Instead, they found themselves being taken into custody, beaten and forced to lay still in the dark for about six hours.

The night in detention was "probably the scariest night of my life ever," he said, adding, "I was not sure I was going to live."

Sweeney was arrested along with Luke Gates, a 21-year-old Indiana University student from Bloomington, Ind., and Gregory Porter, a 19-year-old Drexel University student from Glenside, Pa.

Egyptian officials said they arrested the three on the roof of a university building and accused them of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters. But Sweeney said he and the other Americans "never did anything to hurt anyone," weren't ever on the roof and never handled or threw explosives.

He said the students' treatment improved dramatically after the first night. He was able to speak with a U.S. Embassy official, his mother and a lawyer. He said he denied the accusations during what he called proper questioning by Egyptian authorities.

"There was really marked treatment between the first night and the next three nights or however long it was," Sweeney said. "The first night, it was kind of rough. They were hitting us. They were saying they were going to shoot us and they were putting us in really uncomfortable positions. But after that first night, we were treated in a just manner. ... We were given food when we needed, and it was OK."

The students took separate flights out of Egypt, and Porter and Gates declined to recount details of their experience after arriving in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, respectively.

"I'm not going to take this as a negative experience," Gates said. "It's still a great country."

Porter said only that he was thankful for the help he and the others received from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, administrators at the university they were attending, and attorneys in Egypt and the U.S.

"I'm just so thankful to be back, to be in Philadelphia right now," he said.

Associated Press photographers Jeff Roberson in St. Louis and Michael Conroy in Indianapolis contributed to this report. AP writers Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, Bill Cormier in Atlanta and Andale Gross and Erin Gartner in Chicago also contributed.

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