So far in 2015, we have seen journalists beheaded with machetes, a blogger whipped with a cane as an official judicial punishment for his writing, editorial cartoonists gunned down in their office, bloggers hacked to death in Bangladesh, more than 20 journalists detained and even convicted and jailed in Egypt, and journalists detained in America for covering the racism prevalent in almost every official part of our system. Not a great year.
In August, a judge reaffirmed a guilty verdict against three al-Jazeera English journalists. Last month, President al-Sisi pardoned the journalists as a part of the annual Eid holiday tradition of leaders granting pardons. The current regime in Egypt does not much like journalists, and it is estimated that some two dozen writers and photographers are in prison in that country, having been arrested for doing their jobs. Usually, they are charged with “spying,” but more often than not they are detained for months or even years before they even hear why they were arrested or what charges they face.
Mahmoud Abu Zeid is a photojournalist whose work you may very well have seen, as his photographs have appeared in Time magazine and some of them were syndicated by Corbis. (One appears below the fold.) He covered the protests in Tahrir Square and the trial of former president Hosni Mubarak. His professional name is Shawkan. As of today, November 30, 2015, he has spent 838 days in pre-trial detention. His first court session is due to take place on December 12, but his lawyer reports to Amnesty International that he has yet to see Shawkan’s case file. Under Egyptian law, there is a two-year cap on pre-trial detention; 794 days is longer than two years.
Shawkan was arrested in a round-up during nation-wide protests on August 14, 2013. He was arrested while doing his job, while taking photos of the protests and the crackdown. It is believed that about 1000 people lost their lives across the nation in the police actions against the protests that day, and several thousand were arrested, all in the name of stopping the Muslim Brotherhood. Shawkan was arrested in a mass round-up and he remains just one in a crowd: on December 12, he will be a part of a “mass trial of 738 defendants.”
Two years and several months without hearing charges is ludicrous, of course, but it also goes against international norms and Egyptian law itself. As Amnesty reports, “The Egyptian Code of Criminal Procedures in its article 143 limits pre-trial detention to up to two years and orders the immediate release of a detainee if not sentenced within that period.”
Two days before his second anniversary in prison, Shawkan and some 400 others had their cases referred to criminal court, but his lawyers (and, I presume, the lawyers of all the hundreds of others) learned about this after the fact. Thus, none of the individuals could mount a defense. Egypt officially played by its own rules of not detaining these individuals beyond two years each, but unofficially, Egypt is playing a shell game with these lives. Shawkan faces charges, it is believed, of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, of possessing firearms, and of murder.
It is known that Shawkan was questioned without a defense lawyer being present back in 2013. Letters have been received from him and in them he describes what he has faced and is still confronted with: several beatings, being kept in an overcrowded detention chamber, being kept outdoors in the summer heat. He reported in April 2015 that he had been “kept like an animal.” In August, after his case was referred to criminal court, he was moved to Tora prison, so the conditions he has faced for the last couple months have actually declined in quality. In Egypt there is no difference in treatment between a person convicted and a person yet to hear the charges against him.
To make matters worse, Shawkan learned before his arrest that he is ill with Hepatitis C and he has been denied his medications or any medical care.
One can call this a terrible case of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he is a journalist; a journalist’s job is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Happily so. President al-Sisi’s government has all but openly declared war against journalists. For a legal system, any legal system in any country, to loudly ignore evidence that it has wrongly detained a person, to contravene legal norms in every country by refusing to offer that person’s defense team any information about what the accusations are he is facing, much less to deny that individual basic humane treatment … well, those actions do not even meet the not very high standards of a nation’s rules of engagement during wartime. We treat opponents on a battlefield better than President al-Sisi treats detainees, especially journalists who have been arrested. (My nation does not have the cleanest of hands in treatment of detainees.)
The Committee to Protect Journalists has been supporting Shawkan since his arrest. Avaaz.org has an online petition that will be delivered to Judge Adly Mansour, Head of Egypt’s High Constitutional Court. Amnesty International has been reporting with greater and greater urgency about Shawkan’s imprisonment, especially after his December hearing was announced. There is a Facebook page. An online friend has maintained a weekly Twitter newsletter: Shawkan Weekly. Mohamad Fahmy, the al-Jazeera journalist that President al-Sisi pardoned last month, is using his platform to raise awareness about Shawkan’s case:
Here is a sample of Shawkan’s work, taken from the more than 2000 photos available on his Demotix portfolio:
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Today is the third annual Blog Action Day, and appropriately enough, #RaiseYourVoice is the theme. As the organization explains, “We have the power to create the world we want to see when we raise our voice to promote positive change and expose unjust actions. However, those who speak out are often under attack. This Blog Action Day we will celebrate those heroes who raise their voice when faced with censorship, threats and even violence. We will raise our voices to defend their right to raise theirs. We will overcome silence with our words and actions. We will share their stories. We will fight for those whose voice has been silenced.”
Use your voice.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 16 asks, “Interview someone—a friend, another blogger, your mother, the mailman—and write a post based on their responses.”
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I nominated you for the Lieber Award. I’ll be posting the questions shortly (forgot to do this!)
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