‘Freedom, I came back to life’: Canadian returns home after 15 years jailed in Egypt for espionage
Looking out of a Toronto hotel room window on a freezing January morning, Joseph Attar is overwhelmed with emotion. After nearly 15 years locked up in an Egyptian prison, the coldness of Canadian winters is something he wasn’t sure he would feel again.
“I can’t believe I’m home,” he said through tears. “Freedom. I’m back to life, back to life.”
Attar – who originally passed by Mohammed el-Attar before converting to Christianity – landed safely at Toronto’s Pearson airport on Friday morning. He has not set foot in Canada since January 2007, when he was arrested in Cairo aged 31, during what he said was a holiday to see his family.
Now, at 45, he is home and finds himself in a very different world to what he remembered all those years ago, having spent a third of his life behind bars. His mother and father have since passed away and he has no family in Canada.
“Imagine yourself in a very deep ocean, you can’t catch your breath for 15 years,” he told CBC News of his time in prison. “You die every day.”
Accused of espionage
Born in Egypt to a Muslim family, Attar fled the country to Canada, claiming he was persecuted because of his Christian faith and because he was gay.
In Toronto, Attar worked as a bank teller for the CIBC. Egyptian officials claimed he used his position at the bank to obtain information on various accounts for Israel, which they said recruited him while he was living in Turkey in 2001.
His trial began in February 2007 and in April of that year he was convicted and promptly sentenced to 15 years in prison based on a confession he later said he made under duress because that he had been tortured.
“I’ve been under psychological and physical pressure to admit things I didn’t say that are totally the opposite of the truth,” he said in 2007.
On Friday, Attar told CBC News his ordeal began as soon as he arrived at Cairo airport. Immediately, he said, he was taken to a location he understood to be an Egyptian intelligence facility.
There, he says, not only was he threatened, but threats were also made against his family, including his brothers in the Egyptian army.
When asked on Friday why he believed he was being charged with espionage, Attar argued the accusation against him was ‘baseless’, saying he never violated his position at the bank or ‘cheated’ Canada or Egypt.
Attar claims he was tortured
Much of the Egyptian case hinged on confessions that Attar and human rights groups claimed to have been tortured.
In 2015, Amnesty International’s Alex Neve told CBC News that Attar’s faith and sexual orientation made him extremely vulnerable in Egypt.
“There’s every reason in the world for the Canadian government to take this matter very seriously, and we’ve never seen any indication of that,” Neve said.
One of the last things Attar said publicly from his cell during his trial was that he had been electrocuted and forced to drink his own urine.
CBC News reported in 2015 that Attar was being held in a three by two meter cell in Egypt’s Tora prison, known for its harsh conditions.
Although he was imprisoned for what he considers to be false allegations, Attar told CBC News that he forgives those who imprisoned him.
“The Lord taught me to do something. I forgave those who put me in prison for something I never did. I forgive them all.”
“I felt neglected by my government”
Attar told CBC News he believed consular officials did their job, but his appeals to the Conservative government of then-prime minister Stephen Harper went unanswered.
“I felt neglected by my government,” he said. “I felt that Canada is a great nation, for God’s sake it’s one of the G7 countries in the world and it has one of the most respectable passports ever… What is going on?”
When the Liberals took power in 2015, Attar says he wrote directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A few months later, he says he received a reply telling him that the government was working to help him return home.
Around the time of the G20 summit in Japan in 2019, Attar says he received letters from the Canadian foreign minister regarding private meetings with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, during which they discussed the case of ‘Attar.
“A lot of questions around this case”
Over the years, there was little information about the status of Attar’s case, retired CBC producer Stuart Einer said before Attar’s return.
In 2011, Einer decided to send Attar a handwritten letter through Canadian consular services. Months passed, until finally Einer received a letter back. From there, the couple continued to write to each other regularly – their exchange continued for 11 years.
“His letters were a combination of frustration at feeling that his case was not taken seriously by anyone – whether in government, in Egypt or in Canada – and interspersed with stories of daily life in prison,” Einer said. .
On Thursday evening, Einer received a letter from consular services with a message from Attar attached, saying he had been released.
“There are many, many questions surrounding this case and him,” Einer said, noting that all these years later not much more is known about the case than 15 years ago.
“Canada can do better”
Majed El Shafie, founder and president of One Free World International, a Toronto-based international human rights organization, was among those advocating for Attar’s release.
El Shafie arrived in Canada 20 years ago as a refugee after saying he too was imprisoned in Egypt and tortured for what he says were his Christian beliefs.
“I know exactly what he went through,” he said of Attar’s ordeal. “I know his pain, I know his scars. I know the treatment and I know the persecution he faced.”
With Attar now free, El Shafie said he and his organization were helping her piece together the pieces of her life, including finding her housing and a trauma counsellor.
“He needs to stand up, he needs to get a job, he needs to heal… his soul and his sanity. He needs a village,” he said.
Still, despite wasting all those years in prison, El Shafie says Attar is one of the lucky ones because people now know about his ordeal. There are countless other Canadians in prisons around the world whose stories have gone unheard, he said.
“We saw the story of the two Michaels, for example, and we really saw what pressure can do,” he said, referring to Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, both detained in China in December. 2018.
If their stories hadn’t made headlines, he added, the public would never have known about their cases.
“We have to do better than that. Canada can do better than that.”