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Syria releases Egyptian-American accused of espionage

By Ivan Watson and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, CNN
Muhammad Radwan was released to the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus on Friday, according to family members.
Muhammad Radwan was released to the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus on Friday, according to family members.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Family: Egyptian-American detained by Syria over espionage concerns is released
  • Muhammad Radwan was turned over to the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus
  • Radwan was seen on State TV in what was billed as a televised confession

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Syrian authorities have released an Egyptian-American man one week after detaining him on espionage concerns and showing him in what was billed as a televised confession on state TV.

Muhammad Radwan was released to the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus on Friday, family members said.

Radwan's cousin Nora Shalaby, who helped organize a campaign for his release, said she spoke with Radwan by telephone.

"I got an international phone call and it was this guy from the Egyptian Embassy in Syria," Shalaby told CNN. "He said I have really good news ... there's someone who wants to speak to you."

"At first I thought it was his dad," Shalaby recounted. "And then he said, "No this is Muhammad."

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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 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 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 said 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 asked.

"Approximately 100 Egyptian pounds," Radwan answered in Arabic. That amounts to about $17.

"Have you visited Israel at any time?" the interrogator asked.

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

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

To the best of his family's knowledge, Radwan was never formally charged with any crime.

"The Syrian government did not charge him with anything yet officially," Maha Radwan said in an interview Wednesday. "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."

Radwan was born and raised in Houston, 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, he worked for several years in Saudi Arabia before taking a year off to backpack across Latin America. On his Twitter account, Radwan describes himself as an "engineer to international vagabond to engr ... cyclic."

In April 2010, Radwan went back to work, this time for an oil company in Syria. But this January, 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" website after he had been hit in the forehead with buckshot 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 other 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 said.

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," Shalaby said.

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

Now that Radwan has been released to Egyptian custody, Shalaby said his cousin will try to return to Cairo as soon as possible.

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