A journalist’s job is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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In a courtroom near Cairo, Egypt, earlier today (December 10), the case of photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (“Shawkan”) was adjourned once again, this time until Tuesday, December 27.
Today is International Human Rights Day, a date celebrated by the United Nations and human rights organizations for decades. Around the world today, people have been posting photos of themselves “behind bars” in support of Shawkan. The photo at top is one collection of dozens I that greeted me on my Twitter feed today. Amnesty International has a “Write for Rights” public petition on Shawkan’s behalf, as well: Write for Rights for Shawkan.
Shawkan’s story has so far been one of the denial of basic human rights by a nation allied with Western governments, but it also has been a story of many citizens stepping up and making certain that Shawkan’s story is heard. Both stories are worth knowing.
What follows is my backgrounder article about Shawkan and his trial:
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On the good days, the dozen prisoners negotiate their way through the impossibility of the circumstances. The bad days are simply more impossible, because even impossible situations can be made worse.
The prisoners are crowded in a space the size of a child’s bedroom, nine feet by twelve feet, which for obvious reasons does not have cots for all twelve occupants. They take turns sleeping on the cot or on spaces on the floor. A sink and toilet sit open against one wall. The prisoners take turns cooking on a two-plate electric cooker, which during the winter months has served as the unheated prison cell’s heat source.
The sky, the only way to know if it is day or night, is seen through a small gap in the iron bars in the ceiling of the cell. One prisoner wrote in 2014:
I can only just see the sky from a small hole in the ceiling. Iron is taking over the place here. Heavy iron doors and a dark room like a dungeon. I spend twenty two hours each day locked in this small, dark cell with twelve others. For two hours I am moved into a small cage under a sun that I can barely feel. This is my existence … I’m Mahmoud Abou Zeid, “Shawkan.”
An Egyptian photojournalist named Mahmoud Abu Zeid (“Shawkan”) has been one of those dozen prisoners in that cramped cell in Tora Prison in Egypt since December 2013, when he was transported there from his post-arrest incarceration in Abu Zaabal Prison. Shawkan is a photojournalist who was arrested in a general roundup of a protest in August 2013. Today, December 10, 2016, is his 1214th day in prison.
On a handful of occasions, he has been punished for violations in prison (never specified) and placed in solitary confinement. Conditions can be worse in solitary confinement in Tora Prison than they are in the overcrowded cells.
Shawkan’s case has once again attracted international attention. This may be good news. Shawkan’s trial was postponed on December 10 until December 27, 2016. In November, the Egyptian Press Syndicate submitted a list of 29 detained journalist’s names, among them Shawkan’s, to be considered for amnesty.
Anyone can help. Follow the link above, from Amnesty International for names, addresses, and proper salutations for letters you can write between now and December 19. (“More Action Needed! – Release Prisoner Of Conscience In Need Of Medical Treatment Egypt: UA 243/14.”)
And the United Nations is speaking out officially. The outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has spoken of Shawkan on social media, which is good, but not official.
In October, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published its August report, in which its officials stated that they consider Shawkan’s detention to be “arbitrary,” demanded that Shawkan be freed, wrote that the Group considers accounts of Shawkan’s torture to be “credible,” and also demanded that after he is released that Egypt pay him reparations and prove to the world that it has done so. “Opinion No. 41/2016 concerning Mahmoud Abdel Shakour Abou Zeid Attitallah (Egypt)” makes for stomach-churning reading in its descriptions of Shawkan’s journey through the Egyptian legal system. (The link is to a PDF of the document.)
Egypt has yet to acknowledge the existence of the OHCHR report and postponed his hearing on November 1, only four days after the report was published. This may or may not have been a perverse sort of reply to the United Nations.
Anyone following Shawkan’s case can see that the waiting is wearying. The trial itself is trial enough for Shawkan.
Each court appearance has so far merely served as the latest chapter in a three-year saga, a Kafkaesque tale that should not be taking place at all.
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Mahmoud Abu Zeid (“Shawkan”) was a credentialed reporter covering the story of Rabaa sit-in protest and the government crackdown against the protest, and he was arrested in the general chaos of the roundup. Other journalists were arrested, too, and some died in the crackdown, but those journalists were released as they were not Egyptian, unlike Shawkan. Shawkan should have been released by the Egyptian authorities within days when they realized what they had done, and his name should not be leading the litany of names of reporters who were arrested for doing their job in recent years.
But more than three years later, Shawkan still sits in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement, and he awaits each new, now monthly, delay in the delivery of any news, any change in status, any justice.
Because there are so many defendants in the trial of the Rabaa protest crackdown, the hearings are being conducted in a special building constructed for mass trials. It is outside Tora Prison near Cairo.
In that courtroom, the defendants are held en masse in a soundproof dock, dozens at a time. A cage contains them. 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.
If Shawkan is called forward on December 27 to speak with the panel of judges, which is not guaranteed, he will have the so far rare opportunity to request a release on medical grounds: he has hepatitis C and medications for that condition have been not been given to him regularly in prison. Only the judges can grant a release, and the only way for a judge to know that one of the 738 defendants is a photojournalist rounded up in a mass arrest three years ago is by meeting him and hearing his story. (There were 739 defendants, but one was released in October because he is ill and 65 were freed in November.)
It is easy for a writer like me to describe what Shawkan has been living as a Kafkaesque nightmare of a bizarre bureaucracy, but he is the one living it. It is a nightmare. His occasional foray into the world comes when he is to see the court, at which time his case is delayed, remanded, or postponed, and he returns to prison. Look at his face in the photo below, taken by Ahmad Abdelgwad on August 9: he is in a nightmare.
Mahmoud Abou Zeid "Shawkan" during His trial Today
محمود ابو زيد "شوكان" اثناء جلسته اليوم بمعهد الامناء بطره. pic.twitter.com/u3Hgj0Limf
— Ahmed Abdelgwad (@kmananaPH) August 9, 2016
This is the nightmare that has been Shawkan’s everyday life for the last three years: Shawkan is the only journalist who was rounded up in the police dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in three years ago who remains in custody. The Rabaa sit-in was a part of Egypt’s portion of demonstrations during the vast Arab Spring movement. Shawkan had every right to be there as a journalist, and if the court would hear his case they would learn that he has no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government declared is a terrorist organization and is what the round-up was trying to destroy. But there are 737 other defendants, each of them accused, as Shawkan is, of a slate of crimes ranging from engaging in armed conflict with security forces, harming national security, attacking civilians, destroying public facilities, and supporting or being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
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. For a journalist, the wrong place at the wrong time is the best place to be and the only time to be there.
As this trial has stuttered along, the typical day of a hearing unfolds something like this: a defendant is called before the panel, the judges usually announce that they need to inspect the evidence regarding that defendant or they see that not all the evidence is present or they demand that the defendant must supply evidence that may acquit him, and then the entire trial and all of the other 700-plus defendants are sent back for a month or so.
For most of the three years he has been incarcerated, Shawkan did not know the charges against him, something that contravenes the judicial practices in almost every nation.
He spent two years and several months without hearing charges, which 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, not before. Thus, none of the individuals were able to mount a defense.
It could be said that Egyptian officials were paying a sort of sarcastic lip service to the country’s own laws about a two-year maximum before hearing charges. In an official, obsequious, way, Egypt 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 played an ugly 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.
For two years, Shawkan was held without knowing what the charges against him might be; 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 2016, 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.
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 2015, after his case was referred to criminal court, he was moved to Tora Prison, so the conditions he has faced for this last year 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.
The National Press Club in Washington, DC, announced on June 27 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.”
Shawkan has been honored by journalism associations around the world this year.
In June 2016, a member of Ireland’s Dáil Éireann (that nation’s parliament) 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 ways. 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.
(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 also for Lasley Shannon’s ongoing friendly encouragement in my continuing to pursue this story.)
* * * *
In May, Shawkan had a chance to speak: “Taking pictures isn’t a crime,” he told the court.
President al-Sisi’s government (and its jurisprudential system) has made it clear that it considers Shawkan’s job, journalism, to be a criminal enterprise. Several dozen journalists are in jail in that nation right now; Shawkan does not hold the record for being held the longest among journalists in Egypt.
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.)
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 in May 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.
In May, 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 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 in the spring 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 eight times since December of last year.
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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.
Mass trials with many 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 2015 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 three years in prison and has not yet had his case heard by a court.
For his Facebook page, Shawkan dictated a thank you note to his supporters earlier this year:
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.
KEEP SHOUTING, “JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME”
DON’T FORGET SHAWKAN
This Tweet was also published in his name in April:
"You all have become my power and my energy and without all of you I cannot go through this." #FreeShawkan pic.twitter.com/mQVN2ST7Xo
— Mahmoud Abou Zeid (@ShawkanZeid) April 23, 2016
Here is a sample of Shawkan’s work:
He is good at what he does. He should be free to continue doing it.
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I have written and published about a dozen 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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