Photojournalist Shawkan turns 30 facing death behind bars in Egypt
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As photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as “Shawkan”, prepares to mark his 30th birthday behind bars on Thursday, Katia Roux of Amnesty International tells FRANCE 24 that Shawkan's health is deteriorating and called for his unconditional release.
Shawkan was arrested in 2013 while photographing clashes between Egyptian police and supporters of former president Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected civilian president. Months of protests against Morsi’s yearlong rule had led to a military takeover on July 3 led by general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s current president. But supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood as well as those objecting to the return of military rule set up protest camps at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares, where they remained for weeks.
On August 14, 2013, security forces launched a raid on the squares, opening fire on thousands of protesters in a crackdown that was to become known as the Rabaa massacre. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 817 people and possibly more than a thousand were killed on that single day. Prime Minister al-Beblawy told Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm in September of that year that the death toll from the Rabaa and al-Nahda square raids was likely around 1,000.
At the time of his arrest Shawkan was on assignment for Demotix, a now-defunct UK photo agency. Then 26, he was detained alongside French photographer Louis Jammes and US journalist Mike Giglio, who recounted that day’s events on BuzzFeed.
“I was standing behind police lines not far from the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where protesters had massed for days in support of the recently ousted president,” he wrote. “[Shawkan] walked up from behind me with French photographer Louis Jammes, and we stood there together for a minute, watching as police fired automatic weapons into the crowd. We discussed plans to sneak past the police and into the protest. But Abou Zeid left to take some pictures first, camera in hand.”
He continued: “Not long after, police seized me, punched me in the head and bound my hands, knowing I was a journalist and seeming to relish the fact. Abou Zeid and Jammes suffered a similar fate, and soon we were kneeling together on the floor of the bus as the protesters crowded around us[,] muttered prayers and suffered more beatings.”
Giglio and Jammes were quickly released but Shawkan was taken into custody and charged with murder and attempted murder, weapons possession and illegal assembly. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.
Shawkan denies all of the charges against him.
In an April 2015 letter to Amnesty International describing the conditions at Tora prison in southern Cairo, Shawkan wrote that he was treated “like an animal” and that being indefinitely detained is “psychologically unbearable”.
Amnesty has launched an online petition to pressure the Egyptian authorities to free Shawkan. The rights group held an exhibition of his photos in London last year and publicly called for his release again on August 14, the fourth anniversary of his arrest.
The Committee to Protect Journalists made Shawkan its recipient of its 2016 International Press Freedom Award, which was presented in New York in absentia. The journalists' advocacy group also started a social media campaign, asking people to post photos of themselves holding #FreeShawkan placards on Twitter.
The tweet above reads: "[French President] Emmanuel Macron does not want to give Egypt any lessons on the subject of human rights. But we do!"
Shawkan's family has said that Shawkan was diagnosed with Hepatitis C before his arrest and is being denied adequate medical care for that condition and for anaemia.
On the eve of Shawkan's 30th birthday, FRANCE 24 spoke to Amnesty International France's Katia Roux, an advocacy officer with its Liberties programme (programme Libertés). She said Shawkan is one of many innocent victims caught up in Egypt's widespread crackdown on journalists, activists and all manner of dissenters.
“There is no hard evidence against him,” Roux said.
“For a year and a half, two years, there has been an unprecedented crackdown on Egyptian society, including on journalists and human rights activists. They are seen as dissenting voices that must be silenced. Any means are used, including mass trials that are not based on any tangible evidence.”
Roux said the Sisi government pursues a wide-ranging policy of suppressing opposition under the rubric of battling terrorism.
"Activists and journalists are accused of inciting protest, disseminating false rumours, defamation. Political opponents are arrested. It has been documented that Egyptian authorities arrested at least 38 people from five opposition parties and youth groups in April and May over comments made on social media, merely because they criticised the Egyptian president."
Roux cites Shawkan’s family as saying that his anaemia is getting worse and his overall health has been failing since mid-October. When his mother visits him each week he is sometimes in a wheelchair, other times he is unable to sit for long periods. The prison hospital is unable to perform blood tests.
“The most urgent thing today is that medical care can be provided,” Roux said. “There is a real danger to his health. After a year of detention, he wrote saying he was confined 22 hours a day in a 2 metre by 4 metre cell with 12 other prisoners. These are extremely difficult detention conditions.”
Meanwhile, Shawkan’s trial has been repeatedly delayed. Most recently, a November 7 hearing was postponed to November 14. “After four years, there have been almost 40 delays,” said Roux. “The situation is inhuman.”
She said Amnesty’s priority is Shawkan’s “immediate and unconditional release” and dismissing all of the charges against him.
“He is a prisoner of conscience who is detained solely because he exercised his right to freedom of expression.”