Christmas 2013 saw Justin Carmack arrive in Dahab, Egypt. As with many travelers around the world, Egypt was high on his bucket list. However it was the world class diving which convinced him to stay.
An American born travel blogger who has been on the road non stop for 3 years now, Justin is no stranger to hitting up countries a little further off the beaten path. From Malawi, Moldova, Colombia, Kosovo, Burma, Zambia, Jordan – the list goes on – he’s definitely no amatuer when it comes to travel. And he’s definitely no amatuer when it comes to adventure.
But on April 14, 2014, his adventures in Dahab took a twist when he was picked up by Egyptian Police and wrongly accused of kidnap and torture. He wound up locked up in an Egyptian prison. This is his story.
What inspired you to travel to Egypt?
Tons of things. I’m a travel blogger and have been on the road for over 3 years now, traveling wherever I want. I’ve never been to Egypt and it’s been high on my list. On top of that the diving here was meant to be superb, so I came for that too.
Did you originally travel with the intention of staying and working?
At the beginning of my whole trip? Yes. With so little money at the beginning, that was the only option if I wanted to stay on the road. So I skipped from job to job, country to country.
Working in Egypt? No. By now I live and travel off of what I make from blogging, so I don’t work like that anymore. The only reason I’m working now in Dahab is because I’m doing a long divemaster internship. But not for money.
Did you have any concerns about travelling alone?
I suppose so. Not really concerns about safety, but more of loneliness.
Sometimes I am in some amazing place and see something truly remarkable, and I really want to look over to a friend and say “did you freakin see that?!”. But can’t with no one there. It’s definitely still worth it though.
You were arrested on April 14 due to false accusations of kidnap and torture. What happened?
Well I was at the dive center and the police came to pick me up. They asked me if I had tied someone up and tortured them. I laughed and thought it was a joke. But I also knew who had made the accusations and knew he was trying to get me in trouble.
Basically, a few weeks earlier a couple friends and I caught a guy scamming people. He was claiming to be a PADI And SSI Course Director, and took a lot of money from my friends on the pretense of giving them their instructor courses. It started getting pretty fishy, (pun intended), so we had him checked out and found he was a fake instructor. We had him arrested, and he was forced to return the money.
In Egypt, people are the most concerned about their reputations, and we had basically destroyed this guys. So, to get me back (my other friends had left the country), he faked a lot of injuries, made a false police report an had me arrested. Charges were attempted murder on a citizen of Egypt.
Everything was dropped in the end when the guy failed a drug test, refused a polygraph, and the statements of him and his “witness” became contradictory. The whole thing was ridiculous. But by the time it was dropped I had spent 3 days in jail\court and a night in a tiny, dirty cell.
Why can they take you into custody without any actual evidence?
I asked the same thing. They said that when it’s an Egyptian accusing a foreigner, they have to treat it as if they believe it. Their exact words were that I was GUILTY until proven innocent. The opposite of back home.
So even with my alibi of my whereabouts (including one tourist cop) and the Dahab police knowing and believing me, it was still their procedure to send me to the judge for the final say. That’s where I got scared. He didn’t know me, or the situation, just knew the accusation. So I had no idea how it would come out.
So it was your word against his and Egyptian law assumes he’s telling the truth. How did you end up proving yourself innocent?
It was scary as hell. We had to go in to see this judge desperately to say out case. They were just going to throw me in there with absolutely no translator at first, but thank god my friend showed up to do it last second. They were literally dragging me into the room with the judge because I told them I wouldn’t go without a translator or lawyer.
The judge only asked me a few questions. Did you do this? Where were you? Why would he say you did this? Then told me to leave. On the other hand my accuser was in there 2 hours and had a lawyer. So I thought I was screwed.
In the end, I was so in shock about all this crazy kangaroo court stuff, that I got up, and through the translator said “I demand a drug test and a lie detector test for both of us. When he fails and I pass both, I want to not be bothered again”.
They were mad at first, and they aren’t use to western people demanding things in their crazy courts. But in the end the judge just made the decision and it was in my favor.
Were there any issues with language barriers?
Tonnes. Like I said, if my translator hadn’t showed up last second I would been pleading my case to deaf ears. Imagine that. My accuser had a lawyer and spoke Arabic, and I was the only one there that only spoke English. It was daunting.
Also, to me everything in Arabic sounds really angry. I was waiting for a verdict in the hall at one stage, and 4 guys were arguing. They were loud and in each others faces, and I thought for sure it was about my fate. I asked my translator what it was about and apparently they were talking about ice cream. I thought for sure it was about war or something bad. So that just goes to show how intimidating everything was.
What was the court process? Did you have a lawyer? Did you have to testify?
It was the most unorganized and worthless justice system I’ve ever seen. I’ll explain the whole process from the beginning, and you’ll think I’m joking.
First they arrested me. They sent some guy, wearing a uniform with flip flops, and carrying an ak47 like a walking stick. He takes me out To the road and then asks if I have money for a taxi to get to the police station. I laugh and tell him no way.
Then I’m at the police station being questioned all day through a translator, that I luckily brought. They force me to sign statements that are in Arabic and I have no idea what they say.
Then they tell me it’s out of their hands and I have to go to the judge and court. I ask to call the embassy, but even though they let me keep my phone, it’s dead. So there’s no way. Maybe one of the soldiers would have let me use their cell phone, but who knows the number anyway?
So all day I’m either in a jail cell or in an interrogation room and the bureaucracy is hilarious. “He said you did this. How do you respond?” “Um, I didn’t.”. “Ok, write down “I didn’t”.” It was so long and dumb.
Then at 9pm they take me, my alibi and my translator and put us in a giant military transport truck, right next to the accuser. Talk about awkward, for the whole hour trip it took to get to court. We just made fun of him the whole time. The guards didn’t stop us because they couldn’t understand English.
The first day at court, was pretty dumb. I answered about 4 questions to the judge, and that was it. I had no lawyer. The accuser was in there a long time. He made a good act and had his guards carry him in, saying I had stabbed him in the legs and arms. It was amusing, but I wasn’t sure how serious it was either. So I was worried.
The judge deliberated for a while then they came out and said he couldn’t decide. He wanted more investigating and for us to come back in the morning. He wanted me back at 10am. It was already 11pm, so not sure how much investigating could be done by morning. But we left back to Dahab station. (By the way, we had to take a military transport because I refused to pay the huge taxi bill for the long journey).
That night they locked me up again till morning. I had a small cement cell with no bed, blanket, pillow, or anything. Just a bare, hot room with a hole in the floor to pee. They didn’t give me any food or water, but luckily my friends brought me some and they let me keep it.
The next day was a repeat, except my translator didn’t get to the station in time to go with me. The whole way I was worried that I wouldn’t have one. When we arrived I was about to go in when he showed up, so it turned out ok. This time I had a different judge and he asked me the same questions over again. Took 30 minutes to write down my responses and sign them again.
By this stage I was so worried that I called the embassy from my phone that my friend brought. The guards kept yelling at me to shut the phone off and that I can’t call, but I ignored them and talked to someone there, until they physically took it away while others held guns on me. It was frustrating.
It didn’t look like it would go my way, but then the judges assistant came out and said I was free to go. That was a relief.
What are the conditions of Egyptian prisons like?
Luckily mine wasn’t a regular prison. But as described above, I slept on a cold cement floor, sweating my ass off, with no food, water, pillow, anything. I refused to use the “squatty potty”, and used the hall one when they let me out in the morning.
They dragged me straight from there to the judge, so I was hot and tired and dirty and still in sandals and a t-shirt. Everything was so unorganized.
Were you given your own cell?
Luckily there was no one else there, because I would have been sharing. And since I had been brought food, I would have been pretty popular.
Did you have support on the ground?
Sorta. After the court, a guy called me and said I owed him $500 for being my lawyer. I had no idea I even had one. There were other people in the courtroom, just observing, and the only other person who spoke English was my translator. So apparently I had a lawyer there, but I think it was just to say I was justly tried. Because no one told me about him and we certainly never talked.
The embassy was a tonne of help later, but I didn’t have much time to call them. I did have a tonne of support from friends though. A couple friends had called my embassy and a few others came to see me and bring food and water everyday. Some of my friends, local bedouins, found out what was happening and started a mini riot. About 20 or 30 came to the jail and caused some stirs, demanding for them to let me out.
When I was released I found I had over 130 messages from friends, and tonnes of posts and comments on my Facebook wall. I counted them all, and there were messages from people in 40 different countries. It was overwhelming.
What happens now to the person who made these false accusations?
Well like I said, reputation and someone’s credibility are everything. As soon as I was found innocent they asked me to make a report and have the guy arrested for lying. Here it’s a serious offense. I didn’t do it, but I’m sure the guy is worried and scared that I still will.
Does this happen a lot in Egypt?
Apparently so. They said people get accused all the time, and evidence is sorta not required. The verdict kind of goes to the guy with the better reputation, if there’s no evidence for anyone. So I’m sure there are a lot of innocent people in jail.
I doubt there are too many foreigners in jail here, unless they really did something bad, as the embassy told me they deal with this all the time. It’s just such a bad system here. They weren’t even surprised, they just told me not to worry. Still scary though.
What was the scariest part of this whole ordeal?
Not knowing what was going on. Not being able to present any sort of case. Being told I was guilty until proven innocent, and not having any proof. Having guards pull guns at me when I tried to call the embassy. Being locked up in a dark transporter with my accuser for hours. It was all ridiculous, but still scary not knowing what could happen.
Will you be staying in Egypt?
Ya, I’m not scared off too easy. A couple days later I was on a dive boat doing dives near Gabor el Bent. That made up for everything. Kinda. Plus I’m still doing divemaster courses.
Give us one tip for travelling safely throughout Egypt?
Don’t drop the soap in Egyptian jail. Haha, just kidding, they don’t give you soap anyways.
I would say just don’t get on anyone’s bad side, and to always register with your embassy, letting them know where you are. When I finally talked to the lady at the embassy, it was such a relief. They really made me feel better and said it was their job to be there for us.