‘Taking pictures isn’t a crime’

The second hearing in the trial of the 739 defendants facing charges related to the “Rabaa sit-in” in Egypt, a trial that includes the photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (“Shawkan”) will be held in a few hours on Tuesday, June 28, tomorrow.

Today it was announced that the National Press Club in Washington, DC, will honor Shawkan with one of this year’s two 2016 John Aubuchon Press Freedom awards. NPC President Thomas Burr said, “Shawkan’s case exemplifies the draconian way Egyptian authorities have cracked down on the press. Egypt is one of the world’s top jailers of news professionals, and the situation there is not improving.”

Because there are so many defendants, the trial is being conducted in a special building constructed for mass trials. It is outside Tora Prison near Cairo.

For two years, Shawkan was held without knowing what the charges against him are; in March, he and his lawyers finally learned that he faces nine charges that range from “joining a criminal gang” to “murder.” From the moment he was arrested on August 14, 2013, till March of this year, he did not know that he faces execution if he is convicted. Charged with murder, Mahmoud Abu Zeid is in a fight for his life. For taking photos.

He has been in jail for almost three years now.

Amnesty International has once again labeled Shawkan’s case an “Urgent Action” campaign, case number MDE 12/4170/2016.

Last week, a member of Ireland’s Dáil Éireann (that nation’s legislature) wrote to Egypt’s Ambassador to Ireland, Soha Gendi, about Shawkan. Maureen O’Sullivan TD (Teachta Dála) communicated with Ambassador Gendi about Shawkan’s case and the Ambassador replied on June 23:

Thanks for your email and concern. I wish to inform you that we cabled Egypt the same day concerning the case of Mr. Shawkan. We then received a notification a few days later informing us that his trial is still on going and that we will be briefed as soon as more has been communicated from the Office of the Prosecutor General.
As there is still no concrete information which presents additional data regarding that precise case. We are awaiting more to come and as soon as there is anything new relating to his case, we will endeavor to communicate it to you, bearing in mind the separation of powers and this being a court case, in which the Embassy has no right to interfere in an on going trial.

There are only so many ways to say that an answer can not be given; the above letter is among the more polite. But the above is an example of something powerful taking place in our world: Shawkan is an Egyptian photographer whose unfair and cruel pre-trial detention has made him into a prisoner of conscience and whose story has attracted the attention of human rights activists, including a human rights-focused member of Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, who used her position to put Egypt on notice that officials around the world are watching.

* * * *
In the courtroom in Tora Police Institute, the defendants are held en masse in a soundproof dock, hundreds at a time. Through headsets, they listen to the proceedings and each one waits to hear the only important words: his name, at which time the defendant steps out of the sweaty glass box into the courtroom for a moment to face the judges. Last month, Shawkan had a chance to speak: “Taking pictures isn’t a crime,” he told the court.

Mahmoud Abou Zeid, the Egyptian photographer known as Shawkan, was arrested on August 14, 2013, 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 on 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 journalists are in jail in that nation right now; Shawkan has been held 1048 days today.

Those arrested at the Rabaa sit-in and its violent dispersal 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).

One of Shawkan’s lawyers, Karim Abdelrady, told The Cairo Post today that the “judge has been clarified in each session that Shawkan has nothing to do with the case he is being tried in,” that Shawkan was arrested incorrectly as a part of a wide round-up. He also said that the defense team keeps requesting a medical release for Shawkan, as his health is deteriorating.

Last week, I reported that Shawkan finally had an opportunity to address the court. “I am in prison because I was doing my job,” he declared. Karim Abdelrady told the Post today that the judge “seemed caring and asked him about his number [order] in the case.”

The large number of defendants (700-plus) led Taher Abu el-Nasr, another 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 seven 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.

(Many thanks to Lesley Shannon for contacting me with the communications between Maureen O’Sullivan TD, a personal friend of Ms. Shannon’s, and Ambassador Gendi, and for her ongoing friendly encouragement in my continuing to pursue this story.)

* * * *
What follows are some selections of sections from my previous columns about Shawkan, to help keep the details fresh:

* * * *
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 seven 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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