An Egyptian court yesterday pushed back the trial of a man arrested for taking photographs, extending his pre-trial detention to nearly 1,000 days.
Mahmoud Abu Zeid – better known as Shawkan – is a photojournalist being held in Cairo’s Tora Prison, where he is suffering from Hepatitis C complications.
The case shows the dark and hostile environment in which journalists work in Egypt, despite claims from the country’s leadership that there is freedom of expression.
Shawkan’s case was due to be heard in a mass trial with more than 700 other defendants yesterday. But Judge Hassan Farid – who dispensed the three-year jail sentences to Al Jazeera journalists last year – adjourned the hearing for another month to April 23. Shawkan will remain in prison during this time, in conditions he has described as “like a cemetery.”
“Again, and again and again and nothing happens. Shawkan has no freedom. We share his feelings of hopelessness.”
In an interview for this website this week, his brother Mehmet said Shawkan was “depressed and hopeless.”
“My brother is sick: he has hepatitis and anaemia. He is sad, depressed and hopeless.”
Shawkan’s hearing has been delayed three times and the length of the pre-trial detention breaks Egyptian law, which states individuals must not be held for more than two years before their case is heard.
Mehmet said: “They delay [the trial] again for no reason. Again, and again and again and nothing happens. Shawkan has no freedom. We share his feelings of hopelessness.”
The family have appealed at least 17 times to the Public Prosecutor to release 29-year-old Shawkan on medical grounds, without success, according to Amnesty International.
Mehmet described prison visits to his brother, during which they try to talk about brighter topics than his incarceration.
“We talk about the country, friends, cameras. He loves cameras. We talk about the latest lenses from Canon. We try to talk about things that make him happy.”
“We take him books as that is one of the things we are allowed.”
Shawkan was arrested on August 14 2013 while covering violent clashes between supporters of former President Morsi and security forces in Rabaa Square, in the Egyptian capital.
His photography, which covered a range of subjects from Egyptian dance to moulids and street art, had appeared in the international media, including Time Magazine, Bild and Die Zeit, and through photo agency Demotix.
According to local media, Shawkan’s lawyer Taher Abu el-Nasr explained to court that his client was arrested “while doing his job as a photojournalist” while two foreign journalists apprehended at the same time were released shortly after.
Egyptian authorities accuse him of what Reporters Without Borders call “trumped-up” charges including murder, membership of a banned group (the Muslim Brotherhood), participating in an illegal demonstration and possession of weapons.
Shawkan was carrying his camera while arrested and there is no known evidence of any of the other crimes he is being held for.
In a letter sent from prison via Amnesty in 2015, Shawkan described his treatment on arrest and imprisonment.
He wrote of being treated “like animals” upon arrest, with low-ranking police officers called Mokhber, “punching and cursing” him and the two other journalists.
“I am dying. No one knows what going inside me. My spirit fights to stay alive. I am not only trapped inside these four walls, but I’m trapped inside my mind.”
He was taken to a police station where officers beat him more. “They seemed to enjoy giving the beatings. They were telling each other how to beat and torture us to cause more pain and harm. ”
He was later taken to Tora prison, which he described as “a place where dreams come to die.” He described sharing a cell of three metres by four metres with 12 political prisoners, and receiving no access to sunlight or fresh air for weeks on end.
“I am dying. No one knows what going inside me. My spirit fights to stay alive. I am not only trapped inside these four walls, but I’m trapped inside my mind. I vomit frequently. I find it hard to breathe. I feel pressure on my chest. I carry the weight of failure and it is heavy. ”
Rights groups have condemned Shawkan’s continued incarceration.
“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,” said Alexandra El Khazen, head of Reporters without Borders’ Middle East desk in a statement this week.
Last year, President al-Sisi claimed there was “unprecedented” freedom of expression in Egypt.
“I do not want to exaggerate, but we have unprecedented freedom of expression in Egypt. No one in Egypt can bar anyone working in media or journalism or on TV from expressing their views,” he said in an interview with CNN.
Reporters without Borders ranked Egypt 158th out of 180 in its 2015 world press freedom index, describing the country as one of the “world’s biggest prisons for journalists.”