Egyptian police hold Dutch reporter overnight after citizen arrest, then release her

CAIRO — A Dutch journalist working in Egypt said she was released Tuesday from nearly 12 hours in police custody after an Egyptian vigilante arrested her and turned her over to authorities, accusing her of spreading European culture and endangering the country.

Rena Netjes, a freelance reporter for a number of Dutch media who covers Egypt and Libya, told The Associated Press that the citizen who arrested her on Monday took her passport and handed her over to police in a Cairo suburb. At the time, she was asking young people in the area if she could interview them.

Prosecutors released her on Tuesday after police held her overnight. A Dutch Embassy spokesman said Egypt’s top prosecutor ordered Netjes’ release and asked her to renew her expired Egyptian press credentials. The spokesman requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Netjes spoke to AP while in custody and after her release.

“It was a joke,” she said.

Vigilantism has been on the rise in Egypt along with lawlessness as a police force still weakened by the 2011 uprising has failed to rein in a surge in crime.

An official in the state prosecutor’s office last month encouraged citizens to arrest lawbreakers and hand them to the police, setting off a political storm at a time when reports of vigilantism were already on the rise.

At least three people were killed last month by vigilantes who captured them and accused them of crimes.

At the same time, officials have been blaming foreigners for Egypt’s chaos during the two years since the ouster of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.

Netjes said she was shopping in her Cairo neighborhood of el-Rehab on Monday when a shop owner saw her asking people in his store if they were willing to be interviewed. The owner initially offered to help her.

But then he took her passport and refused to return it, she said. accompanied him to the police station to get her passport. But the police refused to take her complaint and instead interrogated her about the vigilante’s allegations. She did not have her media accreditation with her at the time.

A government press officer who deals with foreign media said Netjes was not registered, and she later explained that her credentials had expired.

“In Egypt, any citizen can arrest any citizen and make false accusations,” Netjes said before she was released, speaking from a courthouse while she awaited further interrogation. “Now I have to prove that he is wrong,” she added.

She said some Egyptians are convinced foreigners are bad for the country and harass them.

She said police interrogated her about messages on her phone, including one calling for a protest to urge the fall of Morsi’s regime.

“They treated me as if it was my SMS. They treated me as if I was dangerous,” she said of the police.

A security official said Netjes was held and interrogated after citizens suspected her. The official said she was working on a story about sexual harassment and rape in Egypt, and that her phone was confiscated after messages were found calling for protests.

The official did not say what the accusations against Netjes were, but said they had to check into the citizen’s allegations. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

After her release Netjes said: “I now know how Egyptian activists feel ... when they get arrested off the streets. The Egyptian revolution is about freedom. If you don’t have it, you have nothing.”

Human rights lawyer Gamal Eid said there were a number of other instances of foreigners being harassed in Egypt over the past few years.

He said a number of foreign journalists have been prevented from doing their jobs at times by suspicious citizens. Authorities arrested one Australian journalist and his translator last year while working in a Nile Delta province and alleged they were inciting people to strike.

That arrest was before Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was elected.

During military rule that followed Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, Egypt’s government warned citizens in TV announcements against talking to foreigners, saying they may be spies. The announcements were eventually taken off the air following an outcry.

Morsi has recently blamed foreign meddling for spreading chaos. In a recent speech to Egyptian expatriates in Qatar, he said: “There is an enemy outside Egypt and there is a devil inside that is maliciously messing with people’s minds.”

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