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Family of US Prisoner in Syria: We're Worried He'll Be 'Locked Up Forever'

posted on: Mar 28, 2011

Mohamed Radwan, an Egyptian-American living in Syria, is usually on Twitter constantly, updating his friends and relatives on whatever interests him lately — media issues, Egyptian politics or a fledgling pro-democracy movement taking hold in Syria.

So it was alarming to his friends and family when he went offline altogether on Friday, without a word. A day later, their worst fears were confirmed: Radwan popped up on Syrian state TV as a prisoner. Apparently under duress, Radwan, 32, looked shaken as he spoke into the camera, making what his relatives say is a false confession about selling photos of the Syrian protests, and visiting Israel.

“Everything he was saying didn’t make sense, and it was obvious he was being forced to say these things. He looked really troubled and worried,” Radwan’s cousin, Nora Shalaby, told AOL News by telephone from Cairo, where she lives. “Mohamed is a very easygoing guy, he’s always joking and smiling and laughing. But he looked really serious and worried.”

Radwan was working as an engineer in Syria. He is one of two U.S. citizens believed to have been snatched by Syrian agents during protests there. The other, Pathik “Tik” Root, a 21-year-old Middlebury College student, had been missing since March 18. His father, Tom Root, said his son is “safe and well” but remains in Syrian custody, according to a message posted on the college’s website. It’s unclear whether he’s been charged with any crime.

Two Reuters television correspondents, both Lebanese, also went missing in Syria on Saturday.

Syrian state media accused Radwan of secretly visiting Israel and “receiving money from abroad in exchange for sending photos and videos about Syria.”

Shalaby denied any of the Syrian allegations, saying her cousin had been living in Damascus for only nine months and hardly even had friends — let alone contacts with any political movement there. She said Radwan has also never visited Israel.

Syria considers the Jewish state an enemy and refuses entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp in a passport. When Syrian officials accuse someone of having ties to Israel, it’s often a way to insinuate espionage.

Radwan’s last tweet Friday said he was heading to the Umayid mosque in Damascus’ old quarter, where protesters were starting to gather. But Shalaby said he was merely an onlooker and didn’t take part in demonstrations.

“I think he was just interested to see what was going on, but he had no contact with political activists or anything,” she said. “He wasn’t involved in political activity at all.”

Like many Americans who’ve lived in the Middle East or have relatives there, Radwan was fascinated by the pro-democracy movement sweeping the region. He traveled to Cairo last month to stay with relatives and watch Egypt’s revolution firsthand, though did not play an organizing role.

That’s where I met Radwan, while I was on a reporting assignment to Cairo to cover the revolution. A friend of a friend, he took me on a stroll of Tahrir Square, pointing out memorable street corners where Egyptian youth rose up against the entrenched power of Hosni Mubarak’s iron-fisted, decades-long rule. I quoted him in my news stories.

“It was completely decentralized, and that was just the spirit of it. It is overwhelming, and it’s something I’m sure will be studied for many years to come,” he told me at the time, explaining how Egypt’s youth launched the peaceful, grass-roots protests.

“Every country has its own circumstances. … It definitely depends on the circumstances and the kind of mentality they have … their use of force and their dictator,” Radwan replied when I asked him how far he thinks the Arab democracy movement will spread.

Radwan grew up in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and America, graduating from a U.S. high school and then Texas A&M University. He was working for a petroleum services company in Damascus. His parents now live in California, but his father flew to Syria on Sunday to try to lobby for his son’s release.

The U.S. ambassador to Syria has been notified of Radwan’s plight, and a spokesman said American authorities are doing all they can.

“We’re aware of the situation, and we’re back and forth in constant touch with the Syrian authorities,” J.J. Harder, press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, told AOL News by phone today. “Under the Vienna Conventions, this government has an obligation to provide access to any American citizen who is in custody.”

Radwan’s other relatives in Egypt, including Shalaby, have been petitioning the Egyptian government for help as well. Radwan holds both U.S. and Egyptian passports. “We’re trying to get in touch with higher-up officials who can assist or do anything,” she said.

A Facebook group called Free Mohamed Radwan has attracted more than 3,000 followers. Shalaby said she hopes those numbers can boost the chances of Radwan’s release. But she also has fears.

“We’re just worried that he’ll disappear, or they’ll decide to keep him locked up forever … or that they accuse him of these false accusations and give out long sentences,” she said. “I don’t know. I am really worried about him.”

Lauren Frayer
AOL News