After being incarcerated in Egypt since June on allegations of espionage, Emory Law student Ilan Grapel, 27, returned to the United States on Saturday. Grapel was charged with spying for Israel and inciting violence at Tahrir Square while he was working for a legal aid organization in Egypt during the summer.
Grapel, who holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, was spending the summer interning with St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, whose mission statement is “to create a safe, holistic place for the isolated and vulnerable refugee communities in Egypt to come together for empowerment, education, community development, and social services,” according to the organization’s website. Grapel was released in exchange for 25 Egyptians who were being held in Israeli prisons on criminal offenses including drug smuggling, infiltration and weapons possession. No security prisoners who had been charged with killing Israelis were released, an Oct. 27 article in The New York Times
The New York Daily News
reports that State Department sources credit Grapel’s release in part to Rep. Gary Ackerman’s (D-Bayside) close relationship with Major General Mohamed El-Assar, with whom he spoke every few days.
“When the general said, ‘I want to make lots of mothers happy,’ that’s when I knew there was a real negotiation going on,” Ackerman said in the article.
This, he explained, led to approval for Grapel’s parents to visit him in Cairo, and later for Grapel to have his school books and a birthday card from his mother in his cell.
“They had interrogated Ilan, and they came to the conclusion that what we had been saying was true, that he was not a spy,” Ackerman said to the New York Daily News
. Ultimately, Egypt’s decision to release Grapel came on Monday, Oct. 24.
According to a University press release on Oct. 27, Emory has worked closely with Grapel’s family, members of Congress and the U.S. Department of State since Grapel’s arrest in June. The University’s role was to ensure Grapel’s safe treatment while abroad and subsequent release, the press release stated.
“The Emory University community is grateful for the release of our student, colleague and friend, Ilan Grapel,” University President James W. Wagner said in the press release. “We are thankful to the U.S. Department of State, as well as to the many attorneys and advisors, government officials and University staff who worked tirelessly to help secure his release.”
During a press conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem hours after his release, Grapel thanked both the Israeli people as well as the American officials who worked to free him.
“I appreciate all the help and all the attention and all the care,” Grapel said at the event. “With all the turmoil going on in Egypt, I have to thank the Egyptian authorities who treated me respectfully and according to the tenets of their religion.”
The experience, Grapel is cited as saying in an Oct. 29 article in the New York Daily News
, has given him a new perspective on government and law in the U.S.
“All of a sudden, the Bill of Rights becomes something that you just don’t read in the history books,” he said shortly after landing at the John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Grapel explained at the conference that though he faced difficult times in prison, he was treated well.
“What I wanted to eat, they gave me, including fresh fish. They paid for my meals, more than the average Egyptian would get,” he said.
Despite having recently been released from nearly five months in prison, Grapel was in good spirits, saying that one of the first meals he wanted upon his return was chocolate chip pancakes from IHOP.
Others, such as Ackerman, made light of Grapel’s lengthy isolation.
“We told him the Mets won the World Series,” said Ackerman, according to ESPN.
Though Grapel has returned to his home in New York, it is not clear when he intends on returning to Emory. When he does return, Emory Law Interim Dean Robert Schapiro said in the University press release that the school will be ready to have him back.
“Ilan is an active member of the Emory Law community,” Schapiro said. “We are of course overjoyed by his release. We wish him and his family the very best as they reunite and have time together after these trying months apart. Emory Law’s students, faculty and staff look forward to welcoming Ilan back to campus.”
— Contact Alice Chen