‘I’m in prison because I was doing my job’

Mahmoud Abou Zeid, the Egyptian photographer known as Shawkan, had an opportunity to speak on his own behalf in court today. He is the individual in white holding a microphone and addressing the panel of judges in the above photo. Shawkan’s case was postponed, yet again, this time until May 31.

“I’m in prison because I was doing my job,” Shawkan told the court. Today was the first time that Shawkan was able to address the court. Shawkan was arrested more than 1000 days ago while covering a protest—the Rabaa sit-in—that was a part of Egypt’s portion of demonstrations during the vast Arab Spring movement. He was arrested in a round-up of hundreds of people, and as a result, he is one of more than 700 co-defendants awaiting the start of his trial.

President al-Sisi’s government (and its jurisprudential system) has made it clear that it considers that job, journalism, to be a criminal enterprise. Several dozen are in jail in that nation right now; to the best of my knowledge, Shawkan has been held the longest: 1011 days today.

In the video below the fold, Shawkan speaks with the judges. At one point, he gestures toward the television and news cameras as if to say, “I should be with them covering hearings like this.”

Those arrested at the Rabaa sit-in in August 2013 face a confusion of charges ranging from vandalism, planning an armed insurrection, to premeditated murder and attempted murder. The court has assiduously moved from short session to brief hearing (none of which are the trial itself) while it “examines evidence” (the court’s phrase). The defendants do not know what evidence awaits them, of course.

Thus, today brought Shawkan to one more hearing, one more in long line of hearings in which the Egyptian court system has repeatedly postponed starting to hold hearings, this time until May 31. It is a Kafka-esque farce, minus any deeper meaning.

The large number of defendants (700-plus) led Taher Abu el-Nasr, a lawyer affiliated with the case, to tell the Cairo Post last month that he expects the trial to take a long time until a verdict is issued due to the huge number of defendants: “it might take the court 20-30 sessions to only hear the prosecution witnesses; this is something annoying and exhausting to everyone.”


On August 14, 2013, Shawkan was arrested in Egypt. He is a photojournalist who was arrested while being a photographer, for being a photographer. As of today, the court has postponed the start of his trial six times since December of last year.

Under Egyptian law, there is a two-year cap on pre-trial detention; August 14, 2013, was almost three years ago.

* * * *
What follows is some sections of my previous columns about Shawkan:

You may very well have seen some of Shawkan’s work in recent years, before he was arrested, as his photographs have appeared in Time magazine, in periodicals throughout Europe, and they have been distributed by Corbis, a major syndicate. (One photo is reprinted belo.) Shawkan photographed everyday life in Egypt as well as breaking news stories like the protests in Tahrir Square and the trial of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Shawkan was arrested in Cairo 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 Egypt 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 more face and name in a large crowd, a part of a mass trial of 738 defendants.

One can call this a terrible case of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Shawkan is a journalist; a journalist’s job is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Happily so.

Because he was arrested in a widespread government crackdown, which was known as the “Rabaa Sit-in Dispersal,” Shawkan has been included with 737 other individuals (some sources have the number as 738 other defendants). All face similar vague charges: offenses against public order and national security, violence, murder, attacking security forces and civilians, engaging in armed conflicts, and destroying public facilities.

Mass trials with defendants held in large courtroom cages are not uncommon in Egypt and they are growing more common with the government’s paranoid practice of conducting mass arrests on vaporous and vague charges to force its form of control on its citizens.

Egypt’s justice ministry announced after the first postponement of Shawkan’s hearing (along with his many co-defendants) in December that it was moving the trial and all of the prisoners to Wadi Al-Natrun prison (far outside Cairo), where it claimed it could accommodate the 700+ defendants.

Lumping defendants together always undermines every fair legal practice, from considering each case individually to presumption of innocence to introducing error into an individual’s story.

In February, Shawkan was confined to a “disciplinary cell” for four days, in other words, solitary confinement. His social media accounts from that month describe his tiny cell, six feet by five-and-a-half feet (take a moment and measure that out), a daily slice of bread, a bucket, no blanket. There is a disgusting irony in placing him in this small cell for any length of time, whether one hour or from December till May 17, when the reason for the first three court hearing delays was the lack of space.

Shawkan wrote earlier this year: “I want any sane person to answer me: What is going on? Why am I being unfairly placed in solitary confinement? Has it not been enough to have spent almost 1,000 days in detention unfairly and on false grounds? A thousand and one nights?”

As I wrote above, Shawkan has spent more than 1000 days in prison and has not yet had his case heard by a court. Amnesty International UK has made a priority of Shawkan’s story and it sits atop its list of “World Press Freedom Day” cases written about last week.

For his Facebook page last month, Shawkan dictated a thank you note to his supporters:

I want to send my deep love and respect and my appreciation of all what you are doing for me. I feel so lucky to have such kind people like you. And indeed it’s my honor to count you as my friends.
Tora Prison

This Tweet was also published in his name in April:

Two years and several months without hearing charges, which is Shawkan’s situation, is ludicrous, of course, but it also goes against international norms and even Egyptian law itself. As Amnesty International 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.”

Thus, 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 development after the fact. Thus, none of the individuals were able to mount a defense.

It could be said that Egyptian officials were paying sarcastic lip service to the country’s own laws about a two-year maximum before hearing charges. Egypt officially played by its own rules of not detaining these individuals beyond two years each, but unofficially, by not informing the individuals or their representatives of the cases against them, 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. The phrase, “it is believed,” is more important than whatever the charges may be.

It is known that, back in 2013, Shawkan was questioned without a defense lawyer present. In letters, he describes what he has faced and is still confronted with: he was beaten several times in jail, was kept in an overcrowded detention chamber, was 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 these last few 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.

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.)

Here is a sample of Shawkan’s work, taken from the more than 2000 photos available on his Demotix portfolio:

Easter in Cairo, by Shawkan

Easter in Cairo, by Shawkan

He is good at what he does. He should be free to continue doing it.

* * * *
I have written and published about five other columns detailing Shawkan’s plight. At the end of 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted 199 journalists in prisons around the world: none are facing legitimate charges; all were arrested, like Shawkan, for doing their jobs.

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