An American citizen was found dead in a prison cell in the Suez Canal city of Ismaliya Sunday morning.
The 66-year-old was discovered with a noose made out of a belt and shoelaces and was pronounced dead on the scene, according to an Egyptian security officer in the prison.
Egyptian government officials originally identified the man as James Henry, a retired U.S. Army officer. But the U.S. State Department later identified the man as James Henry Lunn and said that he was not a military veteran.
American and Egyptian officials were quick to call his death "an apparent suicide," though neither has offered an explanation for why he has been incarcerated since Aug. 29 or why he would take his own life.
"We are in contact with all the relevant authorities and are offering all consular services for this citizen," was the most the U.S. Embassy would say about the case.
Egyptian officials offered little more — though a state prosecutor said he had ordered an inquiry into Lunn's death.
For local journalists and activists, however, nothing about the story adds up.
Initial reports stated that Lunn lived in the Sinai village of Sheikh Zwayed, a small isolated community that has come under frequent attack recently as the Egyptian army wages a military campaign in the Sinai. In interviews Sunday evening, Egyptian officials said he arrived in Cairo from the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain on Aug. 25, and that he had no known address in the Sinai.
Just days before his arrest, a fierce firefight was reported in Sheikh Zwayed, and police conscripts were killed when militants ambushed a personal carrier on the highway.
Sheikh Zwayed is not the sort of place a foreigner — especially a U.S. citizen — would randomly venture. Phone calls made to residents in Sheikh Zwayed confirmed that no one knew of an American living in the small community.
Egyptian papers reported that Lunn was arrested for breaking the dusk-to-dawn curfew in Egypt. A local officer told BuzzFeed that Lunn was on the road that connects the coastal Sinai town of Al Arish to Rafah, the border town that sits between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. He said that Lunn told the Egyptian officers who arrested him that he was on his way to Gaza. In August, the Egyptian Independent newspaper reported that he was on his way to the Gaza Strip as he was a "historical documentation enthusiast."
U.S. nationals, however, cannot easily enter the Gaza Strip, especially from the Rafah crossing, which has been shut to foreigners for all but emergency medical personnel. Officials from the Hamas movement who control the Palestinian side of the crossing said that no U.S. citizen had been given permission to enter the Gaza Strip to the best of their knowledge.
A local prosecutor in Sheikh Zwayed also revealed that Lunn was carrying maps and an advanced electronic device when he was arrested, which could have been a satellite phone or GPS tracker.
U.S. Embassy officials visited Lunn in prison last week, and on Saturday he was informed that his detention had been extended for another 30 days.
"Nothing about this adds up, and it's impossible to tell what is going on from the information out there because it is completely possible that none of it is true," said one human rights activist based in Sinai. "There are many theories you can explore about what happened to this man, and in today's Egypt all of them are equally possible."
The activist said that the information released about Lunn would lead many to conclude that he was involved in some sort of "spy activity."
"The Egyptians said he was arrested with maps, and they could have said that on purpose because they wanted to make him look like a suspicious person," he said. "Or he may have really had maps."
He said it was also likely that Lunn, like several other foreign nationals, was badly mistreated in jail.
A French national was found dead in a Cairo police station in September after allegedly being beaten to death by fellow prisoners. On Friday, two Canadians who had been held in an Egyptian jail after being detained while on their way to Gaza to make a film revealed they had been badly beaten in prison.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maged Atef is a journalist based in Cairo.
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