'We are all just praying a lot': JC family awaits word on detained son

Luke Gates, Gregory Porter and Derrik Sweeney were arrested Tuesday during protests in Cairo. Sweeney is a 2009 graduate of Jefferson City High School.

Luke Gates, Gregory Porter and Derrik Sweeney were arrested Tuesday during protests in Cairo. Sweeney is a 2009 graduate of Jefferson City High School. Photo by The Associated Press.

A Jefferson City family is worried for the safety of its son, who was one of three American students detained following demonstrations in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.

“We talked to him around 3 p.m. Monday, and everything was fine,” Joy Sweeney said of her 19-year-old son, Derrik, who is a 2009 graduate of Jefferson City High School and is currently going to college at Georgetown University.

“He told me he wasn’t going to be going over there where the protests were taking place,” Sweeney said. “We usually have longer conversations, but yesterday it was short. And you could hear a lot of Arabic-speaking in the background.”

According to various media outlets, Sweeney is being detained with Luke Gates, 21, an exchange student from Bloomington, Ind., who attends Indiana University; and Gregory Porter, 19, of Glenside, Pa., who attends Drexel University.

The state television broadcast in Egypt said the three are accused of throwing flaming canisters at Egyptian security forces, part of what Egypt’s military generals are calling foreign efforts to stir the anti-government protests.

Lisa Anderson, president of American University in Cairo, has said the university is working closely with the U.S. Embassy to free the students.

Sweeney is taking a double major at Georgetown for psychology and Arabic. As part of his studies, he was spending a semester at American University in Cairo to study Arabic.

He’s been in Egypt since August, and speaks Arabic, Spanish and English.

Georgetown professor Amin Bonnah told the Associated Press that Sweeney was the best student in one of his intermediate Arabic classes. Bonnah described Sweeney as funny and pleasant, a student who came after class and to office hours to speak in Arabic and ask questions.

“He really has enjoyed his time over there,” Mrs. Sweeney said. “He has been doing very well in his classes, learning to speak Arabic.”

Mrs. Sweeney is a member of the Jefferson City Board of Education and is executive director of the Council For Drug Free Youth.

Officials at the Jefferson City School District said Sweeney was a good student.

“He was near the top of his class,” said David Luther, school district spokesman. “He was a bright young man, involved in a number of different activities and clubs. We are keeping the Sweeney family in our thoughts and prayers, and hope Derrik will be returned safely home.”

Mrs. Sweeney said they have all their phones open so they can get in contact with Derrik should there be any word about his status.

“The U.S. Embassy there said we shouldn’t come over because it wouldn’t help him,” she said.

But efforts are under way to help him, she said.

“We’ve heard from Senators Blunt and McCaskill’s offices, and they say they’re working to help him,” Sweeney said. “We are all just praying a lot.”

As of late Tuesday morning, Sweeney said Derrik was not in prison, but still being held in the local courthouse.

“Derrik is a passionate person who believes in democracy and stands up for what he believes in,” she said. “He may have gotten caught up in the passion for the Egyptian people.

“The state department has been in contact with us, and we know it will all work out,” she added. “He’s the kind of kid who just wants to try and change the world.”

She told the Associated Press her son was the peacemaker in the family when siblings fought, and she couldn’t see him acting violently.

“I don’t believe that he would intentionally throw a bomb at anyone,” Mrs. Sweeney said. “I don’t believe that.”

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American students detained in Egypt

1 P.M. VERSION:

Joy Sweeney, of Jefferson City, Mo., said Tuesday that her 19-year-old son Derrik Sweeney had been arrested and that she is praying for his safety.

The mother says she hasn’t spoken with her son but has been in contact with the U.S. Embassy and officials at Georgetown University and the American University in Cairo.

Joy Sweeney says her son has been in Egypt since August. She says her son was the peacemaker in the family while growing up, and she doesn’t believe reports that Derrik threw firebombs at Egyptian security forces during the protests.

Sweeney said her son had previously worked as an intern for Missouri Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer.

“He worked for us from Feb. through May of this year in our D.C. office and he was an outstanding young man,” said Luetkemeyer Spokesman Paul Sloca.

“Blaine’s #1 concern is that he is being treated well as an American citizen,” Sloca added. “We are monitoring the situation and we are hoping all goes well.”

Georgetown professor Amin Bonnah said Sweeney was the best student in one of his intermediate Arabic classes. Bonnah described Sweeney as funny and pleasant, a student who came after class and to office hours to speak in Arabic and ask questions.

9:52 A.M. VERSION:

CAIRO -- Three Americans studying at the American University in Cairo have been arrested and accused of participating in the violent demonstrations that are sweeping this capital city.

The protests, now in their fourth day, are posing the greatest threat to Egypt’s military leaders since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last February, and could jeopardize parliamentary elections scheduled for Monday.

A video broadcast on state television showed the three Americans lined up against a wall, with identification cards from the American University in Cairo, credit cards and an Indiana driver’s license spread out on a table.

A spokeswoman for the American University in Cairo identified the detained students as Derrik Sweeney, 19, a student at Georgetown University who is from Jefferson City, Mo.; Luke Gates, 21, an exchange student from Bloomington, Indiana who attends Indiana University; and Gregory Porter, 19, of Glenside, Pa., and Drexel University.

The state television broadcast said the three are accused of throwing flaming canisters at Egyptian security forces, part of what Egypt’s military generals are calling foreign efforts to stir the anti-government protests. American University in Cairo President Lisa Anderson said the university is working closely with the U.S. Embassy to free them.

“The three boys were throwing molotov cocktails and had no passports on them when they were picked up,” Adel Saeed, a spokesman for Egypt’s general prosecutor’s office, told CNN.

As demonstrators streamed into Tahrir Square on Tuesday morning in response to calls for a “million-man march,” Egypt’s military leaders held a meeting with political forces on in hopes of diffusing the deepening political crisis.

But major figures refused to attend, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has emerged as a possibility to head a national unity government, and Shady Ghazali Harb, a leading member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, and a close ally of Baradei’s.

“I refused to go because of the violence still going on in Tahrir Square,” Harb said. “We can not negotiate with anyone still doing such violence. The legitimacy comes from the square, not the military council.”

The head of the Supreme Council, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, is expected to address the nation soon, in a rare appearance.

As the crowds grew once more in Tahrir, demonstrators held aloft the body of a dead protester in a wooden coffin, a symbol of the growing anger toward Egypt’s military chiefs. Protests also swelled in upper Egypt and the coastal city of Alexandria.

Demands are now growing for a presidential council made up of civilians to replace the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces immediately, or for the generals to hand power to the supreme court until presidential elections take place.

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