3 U.S. students expect to be freed in Egypt; U.S. filmmaker also in custody

CNN Wire Service

As questions continued to swirl about the fate of three American college students arrested in Egypt for their role in ongoing protests there, a U.S. official said that diplomats were also in contact with Egyptian authorities about an award-winning filmmaker behind bars.

The three college students — Derrik Sweeney, Gregory Porter and Luke Gates — were ordered to be released Thursday, said Adel Saeed, the official spokesman of the general prosecutor.

But late in the day, they remained in custody.

There was less clarity, meanwhile, about documentarian Jehane Noujaim.

Film producer Karim Amer said Wednesday that the Egyptian-American woman — whose works include “The Control Room,” about Al-Jazeera and the United States during the early days of the Iraq War — was arrested while filming close to the Interior Ministry building in Cairo.

On Thursday, David Lynfield — a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo — said that U.S. diplomats are aware of “her place in detention” and have been “in touch with the Egyptian authorities regarding” her case.

Meanwhile, family and friends of the three detained U.S. college students continued to ride an emotional roller coaster, days after Egyptian authorities arrested them on suspicion of throwing Molotov cocktails during a protest in Cairo. All had been attending American University in Cairo on a semester-long, study-abroad program.

The prosecutor’s office told CNN earlier Thursday that the trio had already been released. But late in the day, a friend of the students said they could remain in custody for a few more days.

Drew Harper, a 22-year-old film student from New York who has been in Cairo for three months, said the students said they were in good spirits and cited a bureaucratic slowdown for their continuing detention.

The erroneous news that they had already been freed was initially embraced by Joy Sweeney, whose son Derrik is among the three. “We are just so blessed and so grateful right now,” she told CNN. “I can’t wait to give him a big hug.”

The students were to be taken to a physician for a medical examination, then back to the police station for paperwork to be processed, and finally to their dorm rooms, she said.

The Egyptian attorney general would not appeal the trio’s release, she added.

The family is keen for Derrik to return home as soon as possible, for his own safety, Joy Sweeney added.

Roberto Powers, the U.S. consul general in Egypt, advised that as the three students’ pictures had been plastered all over the media, “it wouldn’t be safe or prudent for them to remain in the country,” the mother said.

She said her son told her Wednesday in a telephone call that “they had done nothing wrong.”

Sweeney, 19, is a Georgetown University student from Jefferson City, Mo.; Porter, 19, from Glenside, Penn., attends Drexel University in Philadelphia; and Gates, 21, of Bloomington, Ind., goes to Indiana University.

Their arrests came amid persistent protests against Egypt’s ruling military council in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Security forces have clashed with the demonstrators repeatedly in recent days, though a relative calm fell over the square on Thursday. The same day, Egypt’s military leaders apologized for the 38 deaths nationwide and vowed to prosecute offenders and pay the medical bills of those injured. Some 3,250 had been hurt by Thursday, said Hisham Sheeha of Egypt’s Health Ministry.

Harper told CNN some media reports had inaccurately portrayed the detained students as irresponsible.

Harper described the three as intelligent, well-informed and nonviolent. “I don’t believe for one second that those Molotov cocktails belonged to the boys,” he said.

He accused the Egyptian military of wanting to “pin the recent violence on foreigners” and said they had wrongly accused the three Americans.

Adil Saeed, spokesman from the prosecutor’s office, said Wednesday that a bag filled with empty bottles, a bottle of gasoline, a towel and a camera had been found with the three American students.

“They denied the bag belonged to them and said it belonged to two of their friends,” Saeed said.

CNN’s Mohamed Fahmy and journalist Ian Lee in Cairo, and Devon Sayers in Atlanta contributed to this report.