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Press NGO launches #MyPicForShawkan campaign for journalist jailed in Egypt

Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP | Portraits of Shawkan hang from balloons floating in the air during a demonstration by journalists to demand his release on September 30, 2014, in Cairo.

Reporters Without Borders is launching a social media campaign with the hashtag #MyPicForShawkan in support of an award-winning photojournalist who has been imprisoned in Egypt for more than four years and faces a possible death sentence.

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Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a photojournalist better known as Shawkan, has been in prison since August 14, 2013, when the then 26-year-old was arrested while covering the violent dispersal of a six-week sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square protesting the deposal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. At the time, Shawkan was on assignment for the British photo agency Demotix.

Last month, prosecutors requested the death sentence for him, spurring Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to issue an appeal for people to take photos of themselves pretending to be behind bars like a widely-used photo of Shawkan and, beginning at 10 am on April 10, post them on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #MyPicForShawkan.

Shawkan behind bars.
Shawkan behind bars. AFP, Khaled Desouki

The group is hoping that, faced with evidence of widespread support for the imprisoned photographer, the Egyptian authorities will be moved to acquit him of the crimes of which he is accused.

Shawkan doesn’t face these charges alone. He, along with two foreign journalists, was one of thousands caught up in a dragnet of arrests on the day the Rabaa sit-in was broken up. Roughly 1,000 were killed when police in riot gear used rubber bullets, tear gas, bird shot and live ammunition to clear the protestors, and several thousand others were injured. The foreign journalists Shawkan was arrested with were released a short time later. Shawkan was not so fortunate.

He has been in prison ever since. He suffers from Hepatitis C and anaemia, and his health has deteriorated during the past four-and-a-half years. His family has said he is not receiving adequate medical care and is suffering from depression.

Shawkan was given a mass trial along with 738 others arrested in conjunction with the Rabaa demonstrations. Together they are accused of such crimes as weapons possession, illegal assembly, murder, attempted murder and membership in a banned organisation (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood, to which president Morsi and many of the protestors belonged).

On March 3 the prosecution requested death by hanging for all of them.

Mass trials have been a common occurrence in Egypt since 2013 and have come under fire for not meeting even basic standards of justice. Reprieve U.S., an international collective of lawyers, investigators and campaigners focusing on human rights, compiled statistics indicating that between January, 2014 and February, 2018, Egyptian courts recommended death sentences for 2,159 people and 28 were executed, including a mass hanging of 15. On four separate occasions, the court recommended death sentences for more than 100 people being tried at the same time.

In perhaps the most notable mass trial case, in 2013 a one-year-old child was among those charged and, despite numerous efforts by his family to inform authorities that he could not possibly have committed the crimes of which he was accused, in early 2016, at the ripe old age of four, he was sentenced to life in prison for murder, attempted murder, vandalisation and threatening the police indicating that the judge had not closely read the case files.

That a child younger than two could not have committed the crimes of which he was accused is obvious, but this is less so for the other possibly innocent people who have been handed severe sentences in Egypt’s mass trials. The many rights groups calling for Shawkan’s release say his conviction, like that of the toddler, is unjustified. He was a journalist simply doing his job. In August, 2016 the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council determined that Shawkan is being held arbitrarily and in violation of human rights agreements and called for his release.

The urgency is new, but the NGO's calls for Shawkan’s release are not. Many human rights and press organisations, including the International Federation of Journalists, the Rory Peck Trust, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International have been urging the Egyptian government to release him since his initial arrest, and supporters have sustained a #FreeShawkan campaign on social media.

Last month, PEN America issued a statement calling the decision to seek the death penalty “an astonishing display of political theater at the expense of human rights and possibly the life of an innocent man.”

So far, there is little indication that Egyptian authorities are moved by these pleas. On the contrary: At the end of 2017 more than 20 journalists were being held in Egyptian prisons, and that number has only gone up since. Just overnight on May 5, three journalists were taken into custody, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which called for their release.

"Seeking the death penalty for a photographer who simply covered an opposition demonstration is a political punishment, not an act of justice," RSF said in an earlier statement. "Shawkan's only crime was trying to do his job as a photographer. He must be freed at once."

Egypt is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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