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Twitter saga ends in jailed translator going free

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. graduate student, translator detained in Egypt at an April protest
  • American freed after sending Twitter message about arrest
  • Nearly three months later, translator goes free after Internet campaign
  • Egyptian's brother: "It's like someone was dead and [brought] back to life"
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By Mallory Simon
CNN
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(CNN) -- A one-word blog post from a cell phone helped to free an American student from an Egyptian jail, but it took the signatures and support of thousands of activists to get his translator out.

U.S. graduate student James Karl Buck says he felt guilty about Maree's detention.

Mohammed Maree, an Egyptian translator, is free after being detained for nearly three months.

When detained in April, graduate student James Karl Buck turned to his cell phone and typed the message, "Arrested," alerting all his friends on the microblog service Twitter site.

Upon his release shortly afterward, the first thing Buck did was send another message, "Free."

On Tuesday, nearly three months after the American and his translator, Mohammed Maree, were arrested, Buck turned to Twitter again -- this time to tell everyone that Maree was safe at home.

The post: "Mohammed is free, Mohammed is free!"

Twitter, a social-networking blog site, allows users to send status updates, or "tweets," from cell phones, instant messaging services and Facebook in 140 characters or less.

Buck spent much of the time after his release working to free his friend. But it was not until shortly after Maree's release that Buck and his translator were finally able to speak -- through instant messenger.

"He was totally in good spirits; he joked with me," Buck said. "I told him he was a hero, and that because of his case and what he suffered, he's brought a lot of attention to the government's behavior in Egypt."

Immediately, Buck said he apologized to the translator because he felt guilty about his detention.

Buck, 29, a graduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, working on a photography project for his master's thesis, met Maree, a 23-year-old Egyptian veterinary student, in Mahalla. Maree offered to help Buck as he photographed anti-government protests over low wages and rising food prices in April. See Buck describe what he saw and captured on film during the protests »

During one of the demonstrations, Buck and Maree were detained. En route to the police station, Buck sent a message via Twitter, and his school hired an attorney and was able to get him released within a day. But Maree remained in jail for nearly three months.

After his release, Buck returned home and used his Twitter network, now more than 570 followers strong, to help free his translator and friend.

Fueled by the gnawing guilt of leaving Maree behind, Buck set out to enlist all the help he could in hopes of sparking a movement for the translator's release.

He began setting up a virtual online command post to demand Maree's release. He contacted U.S. and Egyptian authorities and human rights groups and used everything from Twitter updates, blog posts on his Web site to an electronic petition signed by more than 900 people.

Maree's brother, Ahmed, said it was an unbelievable feeling to have Mohammed home.

"It's like someone was dead and [brought] back to life," he said.

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Maree's family was worried about when, if ever, he would be freed. After reports of alleged torture in prison, relatives feared for his life.

Rumors began swirling a week ago that there had been a development in Maree's case, but details were scarce, so Buck said he tried not to get too excited.

"Any change in the case could have been equally bad news or good news," Buck said. "And so far it had all been bad news."

Buck said he cringed each time he checked his e-mail lately about what was happening. Then he got an e-mail from Maree saying he had been released.

There was little information surrounding Maree's detention. Speculation about Maree's whereabouts was fueled by confusion about what initially happened to the translator. Government officials in Egypt said they could neither confirm nor deny Maree's detention during the past three months as well as his recent release despite repeated requests for comment.

When CNN called Attiya Shakran, press counsel for the Egyptian Consulate in San Francisco about the pair's detention, he said Maree had been in custody of Egyptian authorities longer than Buck, but was released April 13. But two days later, Maree's family told CNN they still had not seen him.

And Shakran told CNN in June that Maree, in fact, was still in custody.

Attorneys from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Egypt said they visited Maree in one of the three prisons in which he was held. In the meetings, Maree claimed he was tortured, one of the lawyers said.

Maree said he was beaten and electrically shocked throughout his detention by Egyptian authorities, according to that lawyer, Khaled Ali.

"During this period he felt he was on the brink of death," Ali said in an e-mail.

With Maree finally safe, Buck said he wants to try to work with Twitter on establishing a global network help line for those who find themselves in similar situations.

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Buck said he hopes to visit his translator in Egypt as soon as possible and meet his family so he can apologize to them and tell them about the impact Maree has made.

"I think he's a hero. Some people might think it sounds silly," Buck said. "But he went to jail for his beliefs. Instead of selling out or making something up, he really was willing to stand up to the intimidation. It's people like him that make cracks in a dark wall to let light come in."

CNN's Housam Ahmed in Cairo, Egypt, and Tracy Doueiry contributed to this report.

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