Forced to lie still for hours in the dark, the American students held during protests in Egypt were told they would be shot if they moved or made any noise, one of them said Sunday on his first full day home.
"It was the most frightening experience of my life, I believe," Derrik Sweeney said.
Speaking to The Associated Press by Skype from Jefferson City, Mo., Sweeney said the evening of Nov. 20 started peacefully in Cairo, with Tahrir Square "abuzz with ideas of democracy and freedom."
The three wandered the streets and wound up in a large group of protesters outside the Interior Ministory, Sweeney said. The demonstrations escalated, with the protesters yelling and perhaps throwing stones, he said.
"Eventually the police shot back something, I'm not exactly sure what," he said. "We didn't wait to see. But as soon as we saw some sort of firing coming from the gun and heard it, the whole crowd stampeded out and we sprinted away."
He said they fled to an area that seemed calmer and were approached by four or five Egyptians in plain clothes.
The Egyptians offered to lead them to safety but instead took them into custody, Sweeney said.
They were threatened to be force-fed gasoline, beaten and forced to lie in a near-fetal position in the dark for six hours with their hands in cuffs behind their backs, Sweeney said. He said they were told: "If you move or make any noise, we will shoot you."
"They were hitting us in the face and in the back of the neck," he said. "Not to the point of bleeding or I can't say I have any lasting major scars at this point, but they were hitting us."
Sweeney is 19 and studies at Georgetown University. He was arrested along with Luke Gates, 21, who attends Indiana University and is from Bloomington, Ind., and Gregory Porter, 19, who studies at Drexel University and is from Glenside, Pa.
The students flew home Saturday after an Egyptian court ordered their release two days earlier. The three were studying abroad at American University in Cairo, which is near Tahrir Square.
A popular uprising earlier this year forced out Egypt's longtime autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak. But the democratic age that Egyptians hoped for has not followed. The military is in control, and protesters want it to hand power to civilians.
At least 43 protesters have been killed since Nov. 19 and 2,000 wounded, most of them in Cairo. Landmark parliamentary elections will start Monday.
Egyptian officials said they arrested the three students on the roof of a university building and accused them of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters.
But Sweeney denies doing anything to harm anyone and said he and the other Americans weren't ever on the roof or handling or throwing explosives.
"I don't know where that rooftop idea actually came from," he said. "We were never on a rooftop, we never entered a building. The American University campus building on that street where we were arrested — there were a lot of people that had broken in there, it was swarmed with protesters — but we were not on there. We were on a street."
In an earlier telephone interview with the AP after he arrived at St. Louis' international airport, Sweeney said he and the other students' treatment improved dramatically after the first night. He spoke with a U.S. Embassy official, his mother and a lawyer. He said he denied the accusations during what he called proper questioning by Egyptian authorities.
"There was really marked treatment between the first night and the next three nights or however long it was," Sweeney said. "After that first night, we were treated in a just manner ... we were given food when we needed, and it was OK."
The students took separate flights out of Egypt, and Porter and Gates declined to recount details of their experience after arriving in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, respectively.
"I'm not going to take this as a negative experience. It's still a great country," Gates said.
Porter said only that he was thankful for the help he and the others received from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, administrators at the university they were attending, and attorneys in Egypt and the U.S.
"I'm just so thankful to be back, to be in Philadelphia right now," he said.
Associated Press photographers Jeff Roberson in St. Louis and Michael Conroy in Indianapolis contributed to this report. AP writers Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, Bill Cormier in Atlanta and Andale Gross and Erin Gartner in Chicago also contributed.