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American recounts time in Syrian jail

From Leinz Vales, CNN
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American detained in Syria released
  • Pathtik Root is a student at Middlebury College and was studying in Syria
  • He was detained by police in Damascus on March 18
  • He says he was packed in a cell with about 22 other people

(CNN) -- American college student Pathik Root said he saw evidence of brutal beatings and torture of other prisoners during his almost two weeks in a Syrian jail.

Root, who was jailed in Syria on March 18, said he was lucky to escape the beatings and even more fortunate to be free.

"I am honestly just speechless. It was kind of surreal," Root said Monday night on CNN's "In the Arena." "I don't really believe that I'm back here. The last time I was in front of a TV camera was in prison when they tried to put me on national TV."

Root, a student at Middlebury College, was in Syria taking classes when he was grabbed by police in Damascus during the height of the anti-government protests.

While he was held captive, authorities offered different explanations for his imprisonment, he said.

"They originally picked me up because they saw me with my BlackBerry out about 100 yards from what ended up being a protest," Root said. "They kept me because my passport has a few stamps in it from other countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Then they kept me because they thought I was a CIA agent or a journalist."

He spent days packed into a small cell with 22 other people. Some bore signs they had been tortured.

"Luckily, I was spared physical violence because I think because of my American passport and also because they wanted to put me on TV at one point," he said. "But about 75% of the other prisoners I met were beaten pretty brutally."

"I caught a glimpse of blood-soaked rags. One person's foot was beaten until their toenail fell off," he said.

As time dragged on, he wondered if anybody was searching for him.

"I didn't know if my dad knew. I didn't know if the U.S. government knew. I had no idea if anyone knew where I was," Root said.

His father, Tim Root, was desperately trying to get the word out about him. The elder Root appeared on television news shows and appealed to lawmakers for help.

On April 1, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, announced that Root had been released.

Leahy praised U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and State Department officials, who he said worked to reunite Root with his family.