A 19-year-old British student is facing trial in Egypt for spying, after being accused of taking a photograph of a military helicopter, his family says. Muhammed Fathi Abulkasem was detained on arrival at Alexandria airport, on Egypt’s north coast, after he took a photograph out of the window of the plane that included a military…
A 19-year-old British student is facing trial in Egypt for spying, after being accused of taking a photograph of a military helicopter, his family says.
Muhammed Fathi Abulkasem was detained on arrival at Alexandria airport, on Egypt’s north coast, after he took a photograph out of the window of the plane that included a military helicopter.
Abulkasem, an A-level student from Cheetham Hill in Manchester, is due in court accused of collecting information on the Egyptian army. His family says he has been accused of “collecting information of a military facility” and is being held in an Egyptian jail.
They say Abulkasem, who was travelling from Libya with a friend, took a photograph of the airport from the plane.
He was questioned by authorities at the airport who examined his phone and discovered an image of a military helicopter.
Abulkasem is studying business studies, chemistry and computer science remotely while he cares for his grandmother in Tripoli, Libya.
“He’s a very, very soft kid; sometimes he speaks and you can’t even hear him,” said his cousin Shareen Nawaz.
Nawaz, an aid worker, recounted how Abulkasem booked a week-long holiday to Egypt with a Libyan friend, including a hotel reservation in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. The pair landed at Alexandria airport on 21 November, where their hotel booking had been flagged as suspicious, and authorities were waiting for them on arrival.
“The hotel didn’t know what these guys look like, and don’t know what they’re like. I don’t know what about this booking makes them suspicious – I would like to talk to that hotel, as this has caused someone’s life to take a turn for the worst,” said Nawaz. “The authorities were at the airport waiting for them.”
Abulkasem’s bag and belongings were then searched. “They asked Muhammed for his phone and he gave it to them willingly, he cooperated fully,” she said. He had taken a photograph out of the window as the plane landed, which he didn’t realise included a military helicopter in the background, which the Egyptians believed to be suspicious.
“I have a million of these kinds of videos in my own phone,” said Nawaz, referring to videos she had taken while flying. “Look on a plane and see how many people do this, take a video of scenery as the plan lands.
“The Egyptian authorities saw that and accused him straight away, charging him with collecting intelligence to be used against the Egyptian military.” Nawaz understands that Abulkasem is now subject to a military trial, which are held in secret, and where the chance of appeal is slim.
“The whole thing has been a massive shock,” she said. “If he was a little bit tough he could probably survive a few days in prison, but he’s so soft I can’t imagine what’s going on in there.”
The family have started a petition calling on the British government and politicians to help with his release.
His mother, Imaan Rafiq, added: “My baby Muhammed would not even hurt a fly, he is a big soft teddy.”
Though Abulkasem’s family say he has been accused of spying, Egyptian authorities have confirmed no details.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it could not comment on individual cases.
However an FCO spokesperson said: “We are seeking more information from the Egyptian authorities following the arrest of a British person in Alexandria, as well as permission for consular access. Our staff are providing assistance for his family.”
Abulkasem, who is one of five siblings, recently moved to Libya to support his elderly relative. He has spent most of his life in Manchester, where he was born and educated. He has also previously lived in Egypt.
Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs did not respond when the Guardian contacted it for comment.
Last week, the British academic Matthew Hedges was pardoned after being sentenced to life in prison in the the United Arab Emirates on charges of espionage.
The 31-year-old Durham University PhD student was pardoned and allowed to return to his family on Tuesday after spending several months in solitary confinement.