Sue Wassef: My son is in an Egyptian jail for drug crimes he didn't commit.
Sue Wassef's son Pierre was arrested in Cairo in 2007 and charged with drug trafficking. Coerced into a confession, he is now serving 25 years in prison. His devastated mother can only sit and wait
One Wednesday evening, nearly three years ago, Sue Wassef had the sort of phone call every parent dreads. It came from the British embassy in Cairo. "It's regarding your sons. They've both been arrested."
"I remember the time exactly, because I was on my way to my ladies' darts evening. It was 8.45pm," says Sue. "I stopped breathing. I just asked, 'What for?' They said drugs, and all I could say was, 'Do they still have hanging?'
"I started to hyperventilate. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't speak. My life stopped that evening." And Sue's life is still on hold, because although her younger son, Philippe, was released several days after his arrest, Pierre is still in prison in Egypt serving a 25-year sentence.
Sue runs a large pub in north London. She is a warm, personable and energetic woman. She looks outwardly cheery and robust, sitting in the sun outside the pub, but she frequently cries when she talks about Pierre, and keeping going is clearly a great struggle. Both sons were born in England – Pierre is 30 and has a partner here, Kelly, and three young children. In 2005, their father, who is Eyptian, had a heart attack and both boys went over to Cairo to look after him. They helped on the family farm and worked as mechanics to help pay their father's hospital bills.
"Pierre is very close to his dad, although we are divorced," says Sue. "He loved living in Egypt. Kelly and the children had been over there and stayed on his father's farm. They loved their grandpa, who bought them a donkey. They loved the animals on the farm."
Pierre and Kelly had planned to move to Egypt to live there while their children were still small because they loved it so much.
While her sons were in Egypt, looking after their father, Sue rang them twice a day. On the day of their arrest, she had begun to worry. "I'd been unable to get through to them the night before and all that day, and I'd had a twinge of worry. They know what I'm like. I ring all the time, but I thought if anything was wrong their dad would have phoned me.
"Pierre had asked the embassy to let me know. He didn't want his father told, in case he had another heart attack. I didn't sleep that night. I don't think I've had a proper night's sleep since it happened." The campaigning human rights organisation Fair Trials International (FTI) has taken up Pierre's case and has many concerns about his treatment and conviction. They consider him "especially vulnerable as a foreigner who doesn't speak Arabic", and believe his "confession" was obtained through mental and physical coercion. He was "beaten, handcuffed to a stairwell and denied food, water, access to toilet facilities and sleep for approximately two days".
Frightened for the safety of his younger brother, who he had been forced to watch being beaten and threatened with the death sentence or 25 years in prison, Pierre confessed to the importation and sale of large quantities of cocaine. He was refused a solicitor until he had done so. According to FTI, "Pierre could not understand the papers he was made to sign … because his interpreter was blind [and he has had only] intermittent or no interpretation at all during his court hearings. Police accounts of the arrest differ wildly."
No drugs were found on the brothers or in their car. Pierre has withdrawn his confession, but there was widespread newspaper and television coverage of his arrest as an "international narcotics dealer" before his conviction, which FTI suggests denied him the presumpion of innocence.
It is agonising for Sue to be so far away from her son. She feels frightened, helpless and physically sick much of the time. But she has to keep the pub running in order to send money to her sons every week. The family spent £22,000 on Pierre's trial; he is hoping to appeal against his sentence, and Sue now needs to find £14,000 for the appeal. "I flew over about 10 days after his arrest. He was being held on remand at the police station, which had no facilities at all – no food, no bedding. His father and brother had to take him everything and were able to see him for four minutes a day. The conditions were horrendous. I cried and cried. I wouldn't put a dog in there. People were screaming and shouting, trying to get in to their family members, bringing them food. You don't know what people are saying. It's very intimidating. Pierre was in his cell 24/7, but the police were quite kind to him. The chief police officer could see it wasn't fair. He would let Pierre come out for three or four minutes and I could give him a kiss and a cuddle. This was my hardest time. At this stage he was upset and nervous, but at the back of his mind I'm sure he was thinking, 'This isn't happening. It's all a big mistake. I'm going to get out.'"
His family and solicitor also thought Pierre was innocent and would be released, but at his first trial, three months after his arrest, he was sentenced in absentia while he was present, but downstairs in custody. "That's illegal," says Sue. "You can't be sentenced in your absence if you're there. I was relieved to know that the solicitor registered this and Pierre was allowed a retrial, which is quite unusual."
Sue insists that her boys "have never been arrested or involved in drugs, ever". But Pierre was found guilty of trafficking, dealing and being a user. "He's none of those. Trafficking is a hangable offence. But according to Egyptian law, to traffic drugs you have to bring them across the border. Pierre hadn't left the country for two years."
The retrial took place two years later. "The solicitor listed all the police mistakes for two hours, then asked for a recess, then continued for another seven hours," says Sue. "He produced evidence that police documents had been doctored, witness statements ignored, no warrants were in place at the time of their arrest. When he had finished, all the other solicitors in court shook his hand. All the other prisoners wanted to be his client. He was so brilliant. But it made no difference. Pierre got 25 years again."
A few weeks ago Pierre was moved to a high-security prison on the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria. Having never seen it, Sue imagines the worst. "I want help. I don't want to wait for the embassy to tell me something's happened to my son and there'll be an investigation. In the remand prison, everyone was fantastic to him. The prisoners looked after each other. They shared food. There'd never be a prisoner who didn't eat.
"But the conditions in the desert prison are much tougher. He's sharing a cell with more than 20 people. I can't imagine what the heat's like. I'm terrified he'll get hepatitis. He's got problems with his teeth. Several are broken and infected. He's in considerable pain but it's difficult to get him medical help. His brother has been taking in antibiotics. You have to take everything in: antiseptic cream, medical wipes, disinfectant. We've asked the embassy to get him a dentist. I'm worried about his state of mind.
"I can't imagine how he must feel – in another country, in a strange prison system where you can't communicate properly. He still can't speak much Arabic and no one in the new prison speaks English. He must feel so cut off, so isolated. The only contact he now has with his family is through Philippe, who is allowed to speak to him for a few minutes when he takes in his food. He hardly knows how Kelly and his children are; his brother can't tell him much in the brief time allowed together. A lifelong friend of his has died in a motorbike accident since he's been in there. We didn't dare tell him. We thought it might push him over the edge.
"Prisoners wear white on remand and navy when they've been convicted. Pierre has told his dad that what really distressed him was seeing the area for people sentenced to death. They have to wear red. It worries me. What sort of psychological damage is being done?"
Pierre's incarceration is taking its toll on Sue, too. "Sometimes I don't feel I get any rest at all. I'm not with my partner any more, I work seven days a week, every night. I'm taking diazepam. Sometimes I go to bed really late but I still can't sleep. I sit down to a Sunday roast and I can't eat it because he's not having it. It takes over your whole life. You end up feeling guilty if you do anything nice. Every night I'm lying in my really comfortable bed thinking of him on the floor. I think about him all the time – in the bath, eating, sleeping – or trying to. He loves Only Fools and Horses. I can't watch it.
"He's a big lad – 6ft 2ins. He's very funny, witty, chatty – people love to be with him. He and Kelly have been together since he was 16. He loves his kids and was always playing with them, taking them out. Every penny he had he spent on his children.
"He can adapt himself to whoever he's with. Without a doubt, that's what has carried him through. I'm still ringing his brother two or three times a day. I go into panic mode if he doesn't answer.
"Pierre's children don't know what's happened to him. We haven't told them yet. We've said he's working in the desert and there's no satellite signal out there. But the oldest boy, Josh, is 11 now and he's not really wearing it. Kelly is a really good mother, but it's a nightmare for her.
"I took the children to a farm and Josh said, 'You know what, Nan, I see an aeroplane and I think, is my dad on that? One day he'll be on one of them, won't he?' I mustn't cry in front of him."
At the end of June, when I first met Sue, she had just had news that Pierre would at last see a dentist and that embassy staff would be allowed to take in a mobile phone so he could speak to his family. He was allowed 10 minutes to speak to Kelly and his oldest son.
FTI say they are hoping Pierre is given "a fair hearing on appeal and that the horrendous ordeal that he and his family are going through soon comes to an end." The British embassy, meanwhile, will "continue to provide consular assistance and remain in contact with the family".
Saturday 31 July 2010