Justice long overdue for detained press photographer

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a photojournalist also known as Shawkan, who is to go on trial with 700 other people in Cairo on 26 March for crimes he did not commit. Aged 29, he has been detained provisionally for nearly three years, which is illegal under Egyptian legislation.

A journalist has no place in this political trial,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “Shawkan has been imprisoned for more than 900 days and treated as criminal just for covering the dispersal of a demonstration in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in support of deposed President Mohamed Morsi".

Keeping this journalist in prison proves the absence of any real political will to preserve independent media voices and therefore to protect freedom of information and expression.

Many of the more than 700 people with whom Shawkan is to be tried are members of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The trial was due to start in December but was postponed twice.

Shawkan was arrested with his camera in his hand on 14 August 2013 while covering how the police were using force to break up the pro-Morsi demonstration. The police beat him at the time of his arrest and took his camera. He was then tortured at a police station.

“They treated us like animals,” he wrote in a letter about these events that was published in March 2015. US journalist Michael Giglio and French journalist Louis Jammes were arrested at the same time as Shawkan. But they were released a few hours later with the apologies of the police.

The British photo agency Demotix confirmed that Shawkan was working on assignment for the agency that day, and that photos taken by him in the past had appeared in such international outlets as Time Magazine, Index on Censorship, Bild, Die Zeit, IFEX and Open Democracy.

He is nonetheless facing a possible life sentence on ten trumped-up charges that include murder, attempted murder, membership of a banned group (the Muslim Brotherhood), participating in an illegal demonstration and possession of weapons.

He is now held illegally because the time he has spent in pre-trial detention is well in excess of the maximum period that article 143 of Egypt’s code of criminal procedure allows even in exceptional cases.

This prolonged detention has had terrible physical and psychological effects on Shawkan. He is suffering from hepatitis C and anaemia and his condition keeps on worsening because he has no access to medical treatment. Ahmed Abu Seif, a friend and founder of the “Free Shawkan” campaign, told RSF that he vomits and he has frequent fainting fits.

He continues to be mistreated in prison. He was placed in isolation for four days at the start of March, he was denied visits for two weeks and he has been subjected to many searches. And his family and friends are subjected to humiliation when they visit him.

RSF wrote to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last month to tell him that the situation of journalists in Egypt was unacceptable.

Ranked 158th out of 180 counties in RSF’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Egypt is one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. Human rights defenders and journalists in Egypt are constantly subjected to intimidation, censorship and waves of arrests.

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Updated on 19.05.2016