Australian journalist trapped in Egypt decries lack of government support

An Australian journalist under investigation by the Egyptian authorities says he is getting little support from his country's foreign minister. Austin Mackell believes his arrest in February, in the factory town of Mahalla, was based on patently false charges in a climate of suspicion against foreigners fuelled by government figures.

“We had been in Mahalla for less than half an hour, enough time for tea, sandwiches and nothing else, before driving to our meeting point with local union organizer Kamal al-Fayoumi in the city’s main square, where we were immediately mobbed, then arrested,” recalls Mackell, in a letter to supporters. Mackell, his translator, their drivers, and Fayoumi were arrested on the basis of testimony, including that of an eleven-year-old child, which accused them of inciting violence.

His life has remained on hold ever since, he continues. “For four and a half months I have been in limbo, unable to travel, plan my life, or work at anything like my normal capacity. I’ve been dependent on groups dedicated to the support of journalists in crisis for financial support.” The case has also hindered the ability of his translator, Aliya Alwi, to find work.  The case is currently under review at the Cairo office of the public prosecutor.

Following the arrests, electronic equipment containing confidential information was seized. “This equipment … is being thoroughly searched,” Mackell believes. “At least one of my sensitive sources [a dissident police officer who spoke out about corruption and brutality] has been harassed by the authorities about his connection to me.”

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr wrote to his Egyptian counterpart on 31May, according to embassy staff who contacted Mackell. But, the journalist believes, he should be doing more. “He needs to acknowledge that this isn't just any other legal procedure, there's a serious issue here,” he says.

Carr recently flew to Libya for negotiations on behalf of an Australian lawyer held in jail there. “Why can’t he even make a phone-call on my behalf?” Mackell asks.

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