Mahmoud Abu Zeid who is better known under the name “Shawkan” is a young Egyptian photographer. He is 28 years old and he worked as freelance photographer and contributed to the photo agencies Demotix and Corbis. His photographs were in many well-known and well-regarded newspapers and magazines like the German newspaper Die Zeit and the US Time magazine. He made photos of daily life in Egypt, including festivals and street life. With the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising he also covered political protests. You can find a sample of his amazing photos here.
Shawkan has been in prison for almost three years without a trial or a judgement. By his ongoing detention, Egypt violates International law, but also their own laws. Pursuant to Art. 134 Egyptian Code for Criminal Procedures the pre-trial detention must not exceed two years (if the alleged offence is punishable by life imprisonment or death, in other cases the permissible pre-trial detention is shorter). If two years have passed, the detainee must be released. Sunday 14 August will be the third anniversary of his arrest.
This is his story:
1. The Arrest
14 August 2013 will be remembered as a momentous day in the history of Egypt, but it was also a fateful day for the young photographer Shawkan, a day which changed his life.
To explain what happened on this day, I have to go further back in the recent history of Egypt: The weeks and months before 14 August 2013 were exceptional times. On 30 June 2012 Mohammed Morsi a candidate of the Muslim brotherhood was elected as president of Egypt. He was the first democratically elected head of state in Egypt. In November he issued a constitutional decree which extended his competences as president and meant that his actions could not be challenged by the courts. On 22 November 2012 millions began to protest against Mohammed Morsi. These protests continued for the rest of 2012 and the first half of 2013. There were soon complaints about the prosecution of journalists and non-violent protesters.
On 30 June 2013 widespread protests called for the resignation of Mohammed Morsi. Three days later on 3 July 2013 Mohammed Morsi was removed from office by a coalition under the leadership of the Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In the weeks after the 3 July 2013 the supporter of the ousted president protested and occupied two camps in Cairo: one at al-Nahda Square and a larger one at Rabaa al-Adwiya Mosque. They asked for the reinstatement of Mohammed Morsi as president. These camps were raided on 14 August 2013. The police opened fire on demonstrators and everyone else who happened to be there and killed presumably more than 1000 people. Thousands were wounded and thousands were arrested.
Shawkan worked on this day on an assignment for Demotix. He arrived at 9 a.m. at the police lines surrounding the Rabaa square. He identified himself as photojournalist to the police and was immediately arrested. Together with him the French freelance photojournalist Louis Jammes and the American journalist Mike Giglio were arrested. Their hands were shackled and they and others were brought to a Cairo stadium. Louis Jammes and Mike Giglio were released after a few hours, but Shawkan stayed in detention. He was brought to a police station and questioned.
Shawkan describes his arrest and also what happened in the police station in a letter which he wrote on 5 March 2015. He and others were severely beaten and kicked several times. He also describes the crowded and dirty cells and the hopelessness he feels. The letter is well worth reading.
2. Timeline of Injustice
To look at the events since Shawkan’s arrest means looking at ongoing injustice:
16 August 2013: Shawkan is questioned by the prosecutor without a lawyer present
20 August 2013: Transfer of Shawkan to Abu Zabaal Prison. He is punched, kicked and beaten by officers
December 2013: Transfer to Tora Prison. His detention is ongoing and is prolonged in regular intervals (every 45 days).
9 February 2015: Shawkan is questioned by the Minster of Interior about a letter he wrote which was posted on the Facebook page “Freedom for Shawkan”
11 August 2015: Public Prosecutor refers Shawkan and 400 others to the criminal courts. Shawkan’s lawyer is initially not informed about this development, but finds out later. He is then denied access to important documents and information about the charges, number of defendants and relevant provisions of the penal code.
12 December 2015: Trial against Shawkan together with 738 other defendants (including leaders of Muslim Brotherhood movement) is due to begin. Shakwan is the only journalist among the defendants. The trial is postponed, because the court room is not large enough for all defendants (postponed to 6 February 2016)
5 February 2016: Shawkan is put in solitary confinement for allegedly owning a mobile phone. One of the other detainees tells the officers that it is his, but the prison insists on punishing Shawkan. This is how the Twitter account in support of Shawkan described the solitary confinement:
6 February 2016: Trial is again postponed (to 26 March), because of a lack of space for all defendants.
26 March 2016: Trial against Shawkan (and 738 other defendants) starts. Shawkan faces now specific charges, including
“joining a criminal gang”, “murder”, “attempted murder”, “participating in a gathering with the purpose of intimidation and creating terror and exposing people’s life to danger”, “obstructing public utilities”, “overthrowing the regime through the use of force and violence, a show of strength and the threat of violence”, “resisting the authorities”, “obstructing the implementation of laws, surveillance” and “disturbing public peace”.
Shawkan denies all charges against him. If he is convicted, he risks the death penalty. The trial is adjourned to 23 April to allow the defence lawyers to get the files and prepare the defence.
23 April 2016: Trial is postponed (to 10 May), because one of the defendants is not brought to the court room.
10 May 2016: Trial is postponed (to 17 May) to allow the prosecution to bring physical evidence to the court room.
17 May 2016: Trial is again postponed to 21 May.
21 May 2016: Hearing takes place. Shawkan has a chance to address the judge and explains that he was only doing his job as photojournalist when he was arrested. The trial is adjourned to 28 June 2016 to allow the defence lawyer to look at further material the prosecutor presented (e.g. technical documents, but also videos and flash drives).
28 June 2016: Trial is postponed to 9 August, because Shawkan and other defendants are not in court. They were not transferred from prison for security reasons.
9 August 2016: During the hearing the defense lawyers of some defendants accuse the Deputy Minister of Interior of torturing them and demand investigations. Trial is again adjourned and will continue on 6 September.
3. Please take action for Shawkan
Amnesty International monitors the case of Shawkan and issued an urgent action (UA 243/14) with several updates over the past years. Shawkan is a prisoner of conscience. The charges against Shawkan are trumped-up and he is arrested and prosecuted for his journalistic work and for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.
Since his arrest, his health has deteriorated. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, but he is denied medication. In addition he is depressed, barely eats, suffers from anaemia and insomnia. His family and his lawyers tried over and over again to get him released on medical grounds. So far this was not successful.
The cases of other journalists which were detained in Egypt (including the cases of Mohammed Fadel Fahmy, Baher Mohammed and Peter Greste who worked for Al-Jazeera) showed that public attention and pressure do lead to results.
There are currently three petitions for Shawkan. Please sign them and share them widely:
- Amnesty International Petition (in English)
- Avaaz Petition (in English)
- Reporter without Borders (in German). If you sign this petition you will get an e-mail with a link. You have to click on the link to confirm your e-mail address. Otherwise your signature does not count.
If you use Social Media, please support him on Facebook and Twitter and use the hashtag #FreeShawkan. Please do so in particular on Sunday to mark the third anniversary of his arrest.
In case you still have doubts whether your signature or activism changes anything, I want to end with a few lines from a letter Shawkan wrote on 1 December 2015:
I’m sorry to tell you that “I became a person of full of hopelessness.”
This is my new me. However, I keep resisting my new me because of you and only because all of you, all the people and all supporters who are standing by me.
You keep me feeling that I’m not alone. You all have become my power and my energy and without all of you I cannot go through this.
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”