The Egyptian authorities’ continued detention of photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, exposes the rank hypocrisy behind their claim to uphold press freedom, Amnesty International said, ahead of the start of the photojournalist’s mass trial with 738 others on 12 December.
In an open letter addressed to the Egyptian Public Prosecutor, the organization called for Mahmoud Abu Zeid to be released immediately and unconditionally, and for all charges against him to be dropped.
“Mahmoud Abu Zeid is a prisoner of conscience who has spent more than two years -848 days- in pre-trial detention solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.
“This 28 year-old-man should be free, not languishing behind bars as his health deteriorates. His journalism is not a crime.”
Mahmoud Abu Zeid is suffering from Hepatitis C and has been denied access to essential medication. His lawyers have appealed to the Public Prosecutor at least 17 times for his release on medical grounds, without success.
At a trial scheduled to start on 12 December, the photojournalist risks life imprisonment on trumped-up and politically motivated charges stemming from his work.
Amnesty International has collected nearly 90,000 signatures worldwide through its petition calling for Mahmoud Abu Zeid’s immediate release. The photojournalist addressed his supporters in a letter written from prison and published in early December.
“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 with this,” he wrote. “KEEP SHOUTING, JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME.”
Amnesty International’s open letter to the public prosecutor also details how Mahmoud Abu Zeid has suffered torture and other forms of ill-treatment during his detention. It highlights how his detention without trial for two years constitutes a violation of international human rights law, as well as of Egyptian law and of the Egyptian authorities’ professed commitment to freedom of expression.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told the BBC in November “there is a huge space for free media in Egypt and all government entities are being criticised by the national media”. He added “the free media in Egypt today could not be found in any other country”. Yet, there are currently at least 32 journalists being held behind bars in Egypt – including 18 in relation to their work as reporters, according to the Egyptian Press Syndicate.
“Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed its concern over the Egyptian authorities’ routine use of pre-trial detention as a means of punishment contrary to international standards which specify that such detention should be an exceptional precautionary measure,” Said Boumedouha, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International, says in the letter.
“Mahmoud Abu Zeid is among hundreds of individuals detained on this basis, in cases linked to peaceful freedom of expression and assembly.”
Mahmoud Abu Zeid was arrested in Cairo on 14 August 2013, while photographing the security forces’ violent dispersal of a sit-in during which more than 600 protesters were killed. He is being held in inhuman conditions in Cairo’s Tora prison.