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Syrian TV accuses Egyptian-American of espionage

By Ivan Watson and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, CNN
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Syrian prisoner's mother pleads for help
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Egyptian-American shown on Syrian state TV in "confession"
  • He is described as a member of a "foreign group paid to destabilize Syria"
  • He has not been officially charged by Syrian government, mother says
  • He had also taken part in protests in Egypt

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- It is an anguished mother's appeal to a distant president, who has been using deadly force to crush an uprising.

"At least let someone talk to him, let someone see him," the woman says, her voice cracking with emotion, her eyes filling with tears. "I want to see my son. I have no idea where he is!"

The last time Maha Radwan saw her son Muhammad was when he unexpectedly appeared on Syrian state television last Saturday, labeled a member of a "foreign group paid to destabilize Syria."

The 32-year old Egyptian-American sat stiffly on a couch, answering questions in what appeared to be a televised interrogation. The Syrian anchorwoman introducing the report described it as a "confession."

Radwan admitted he had exchanged e-mails with someone in Colombia who tried to hire him to take photos of events in Syria.

"How much were they paying you for these photos?" the interrogator asks.

"Approximately 100 Egyptian pounds (around $17)," Radwan answers in Arabic.

"Have you visited Israel at any time?" the interrogator asks at another point.

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"I went to meet a friend in the West Bank," Radwan responds, saying he traveled on his American passport.

Radwan's mother says she was dumb-founded when she saw the video for the first time. It took time for the implications of the televised "confession" to sink in. Her son was now a prisoner of Syria's much-feared security services, agencies with a well-documented history of torture and human rights abuses.

"The Syrian government did not charge him with anything yet officially," Radwan's mother says, "You know what? They left that to the media. They put that video together, and one of the channels picked it up and turned the whole thing into espionage."

Syrian authorities have not allowed any contact between lawyers or Egyptian or American diplomats and their son -- saying only that he is being "investigated."

Muhammad Radwan was born and raised in Houston, Texas, the son of affluent Egyptian parents employed by the Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco.

After graduating with an engineering degree from Texas A&M University, Radwan worked for several years in Saudi Arabia, before taking a year off to back-pack across Latin America. On his Twitter account, Radwan describes himself as an "engineer to international vagabond to engr...cyclic."

Last April, Radwan went back to work, this time working for an oil company in Syria. But in January 2011, Radwan rushed to Cairo to join the protests in Tahrir Square against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Friends posted a photograph of him on a "Free Radwan" web-site, after he had been shot in the forehead with buck-shot during clashes with Egyptian security forces. Relatives say he wore a wool hat for days to hide the wound from his mother.

After the overthrow of Mubarak, Radwan gave an interview to the Voice of America along with several Egyptian revolutionaries. He described how protesters had organized themselves, in anticipation of a government crackdown.

"They actually went into certain neighborhoods, timed how long it would take for different neighborhoods to eventually congregate, at the point where they figured security forces would face them," Radwan says, speaking in fluent, American-accented English.

Syrian state television has used parts of the VOA report, to accuse Radwan of trying to export Egypt's revolution to Syria.

"They're using him as a scapegoat to parade him on TV," says Radwan's cousin Nora Shalaby.

"It happened in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and in Libya, and its all the same in Bahrain and Yemen. Always blame it on 'foreign elements.' It's a ridiculous accusation."

According to his Twitter account, Radwan was following the growing protests in Syria, remarking at one point that the atmosphere reminded him of the revolutionary fervor in Egypt last January. His final tweet, posted on March 25, appears to have been hastily typed from Damascus' landmark Umayyad Mosque, where anti-government protesters were demonstrating.

"Umayid mosque #syria just turned upside down, pro anti rwgome crash," he wrote.

Radwan's father traveled to Damascus last week, to lobby Syrian authorities for information on his son's whereabouts. Meanwhile Maha Radwan is mobilizing supporters here in Cairo.

On Thursday, she stood quietly with more than fifty relatives and friends in front of the gates of the Syrian Embassy. Armed only with "Free Radwan" signs and flowers, the small crowd stood in silence, facing a photo on the embassy wall showing a smiling Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

After more than an hour, the Syrian ambassador stepped out to address the crowd.

Yusuf Al-Ahmad said it would take time to process Radwan, because he was one of several suspects detained at Friday prayers.

"He also stressed that it was Radwan who confessed and that he was obviously not subjected to any means of torture to do so," says Shalaby, Radwan's cousin, casting doubt on everything the ambassador said.

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