North Africa, West Asia

The photojournalist who ‘damaged Egyptian national unity’

Shawkan, an Egyptian photojournalist, has had his detention extended yet again. His camera has been as cold as the regime currently ruling Egypt - locking up anyone and everyone on no grounds at all.

Aya Nader
14 December 2015
Demotix/Mohamed Meteab. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Mohamed Meteab. All rights reserved.

In a small cell in the infamous Torah prison, heavy steel doors and a room as dark as a grave surround prisoner Mahmoud Abu Zeid - known as Shawkan. A web of bars comes between him and the sky, a sky he cannot see except from a small hole in the ceiling. The photojournalist sits silently, learning with each passing day more about oppression and injustice. 

For more than 850 days, Shawkan’s camera has been as cold as the regime currently ruling Egypt, locking up those who expose its crimes. A contributor to publications such as The Guardian, BBC, and Time, the photojournalist was arrested on 14 August 2013 the day security forces brutally dispersed a sit-in by supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Yet Shawkan did not get a chance to document the massacre. On arriving at the scene, he identified himself to the police as a journalist.  Moments later he was beaten, tied up and thrown into a police van.

12 December 2015 marked the day of Shawkan’s first trial. 

In a case now referred to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) by the Impact Litigation Project at the American University Washington College of Law (WCL), decisions made by the prosecution followed neither logic nor law. According to Amnesty International Shawkan is the only Egyptian journalist to have been held beyond the two-year cap on pre-trial detention with his imprisonment now spilling into three months of illegality.

Despite having no political affiliations, the photojournalist was referred to Cairo’s Criminal Court in a mass trial of 738 defendants. Shawkan faces a long list of baseless charges, some of which are possessing firearms, attempted murder, illegal assembly, terrorising citizens, and damaging national unity. Among those accused in the same case are high-profile members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, as well as random defendants arrested from the sit-in.

Not surprisingly, on 12 December 2015 the court postponed the trial yet again to 6 February 2016. The supposed reason for adjournment was “lack of ability to transport all those accused to court”, as if the authorities were not already aware of the huge number of defendants.

In prison, Shawkan contracted Hepatitis C. Malnourishment, confinement and hunger strikes have left him anaemic, and he is suffering from depression. Denied access to medication, his lawyers have appealed at least seventeen times to the general prosecutor to release him on medical grounds, but in vain. In addition, Shawkan has been denied access to reading material.

Shawkan describes in a letter how his indefinite detention has been psychologically unbearable, and how he is being beaten “over and over again”, listening to the jailers talking over “how to beat and torture us to cause more pain”. 

On Wednesday, the photojournalist's family organised a sit-in in front of the journalists’ syndicate to demand his release. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom organization, demanded Shawkan’s release. 

Amnesty International has on several occasions also called for the photojournalist’s freedom. Reporters without Borders rallied for a demonstration during President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s visit to Berlin.

Shawkan’s dreams of travelling, his love for movies, and his longing for music should not be trapped in a cold cell. Shawkan is a photojournalist, not a criminal. 

A regime that cages journalists for simply doing their job, one that feels threatened by a camera, is the real criminal. 

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