A U.S. citizen, held under mysterious circumstances in an Egyptian jail, has been found dead. Officials in Cairo said on Sunday that the body of an American man was discovered, hanged in his cell, almost two months after local press reported that a retired U.S. military officer named James Henry was arrested, along with 12 jihadis, following a car bombing in North Sinai.
The U.S. State Department, however, said the American man was neither called James Henry, nor was he a military veteran. He has been identified as James Lunn, 66, but aside from his name and age, little is known about the man, why he was in Egypt, or how he really died.
An Egyptian Interior Ministry statement said he was discovered with a computer and “maps of important facilities” at the time of his arrest. Officials claimed that Lunn traveled to Egypt from Bahrain on August 25, and was apprehended in the restive Sinai Peninsula, which has seen an uptick in bombings and violence targeting security forces.
He is said to have committed suicide, using his belt and shoe-laces, one day after his detention at a prison in the northeastern city of Ismailiya was extended for another month. According to local reports, he was sent to the facility for “interrogation.”
A U.S. embassy official told The Daily Beast that embassy staff had been in contact with Lunn repeatedly since August 28, one day after his arrest, and they were allowed to visit him on October 8. U.S. officials offered no explanation for his presence in Egypt.
Lunn’s death has been met with both concern and skepticism. Mistreatment, unsanitary conditions, and torture in Egyptian prisons are widespread, and detainees are often held for long periods of time without formal charges or proper investigations.
Egyptian news outlet Daily News Egypt reported on Sunday that 21-year-old Egyptian student Omar Mohamed Khalifa Al-Saayed died in custody at Qasr El-Einy police station days earlier. A local rights group said the young man’s parents were told by the Interior Minister that their son died of drowning while in custody, according to the newspaper. He reportedly took part in pro-Morsi protests on Sunday.
Last week, two Canadian nationals, John Greyson, a filmmaker, and Tarek Loubani, a physician, were released from prison after being held for 51 days without charge. The Daily Beast’s ‘Open Zion’ blog reported that the two men, along with dozens of other detainees, were beaten in the kidneys and the back of the head.
In September, a French citizen who had been arrested for violating the curfew in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, died in a Cairo police station. Officials say he was beaten to death by fellow inmates.
On Monday, Egyptian news outlet Aswat Masriya published an article claiming a 44-year-old British man was arrested by Egyptian forces in Arish – a city in the Sinai Peninsula – for “possessing clothes similar to army and central security uniform.” The report describes the man’s clothing as trousers, a black jacket, and two pairs of shoes suspected of being those of security officials. Officials reportedly received a tip from locals saying a foreigner was interacting with Egyptians in Arish, which led them to investigate. At a time when xenophobia runs rampant in Egypt, foreigners are often met with distrust.
Lunn’s death comes at a tense time in Egyptian-American relations, just days after the United States announced it was cutting off much of its military aid to Egypt.
The conflicting narratives surrounding Lunn tell two very different stories. This may have been an innocent American citizen, detained in a brutal prison facility for violating a dawn to dusk curfew. Alternatively, he has been described by Egyptian officials as a disillusioned radical, on his way to meet Hamas in Gaza.
For now, the life and death of James Lunn remain a mystery.