Journalists demand release of Shawkan in open letter to President Sisi

Days after the latest postponement of Shawkan's trial, the letter, signed by over 40 journalists and activists from around the world, demands the release of all other media professionals thrown in prison on press-related charges

Supporters and friends of Mahmoud Abu Zeid, the Egyptian photojournalist known as Shawkan, have penned an open letter (published in full below) to President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi calling for the release of all journalists in Egypt imprisoned on press-related charges. They draw particular attention to Shawkan’s case as well as that of Abdullah Al-Fakharany, 23-year-old board member of the pro-Brotherhood news network Rassd.
 
Shawkan, 28, has now been held in pre-trial detention for over 850 days. He was finally due to stand trial last Saturday with 737 other defendants, on charges ranging from attempted murder and possession of weapons and ammunition to threatening public peace, disrupting the constitution, membership of a banned group and sabotaging public and private property. The trial was postponed, however, because the courtroom was too small house all the defendants.
 
The case is the latest in a series of mass trials against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political organisation recently investigated by the UK Government.
 
According to Ahmed Abu Seif, who runs the Free Shawkan campaign, Abu Zeid “only learned about the postponement through his family”, after wondering why the prison authorities had not collected him at the expected time. Conditions in Cairo’s Tora prison are notoriously poor - “you leave your dignity at the door” - and while Shawkan’s family are permitted one visit a week, they are unable to make the journey every week from their home in Sohag, 300 miles from Cairo. His mother has told Abu Seif: “I am losing my son”.
 
Shawkan, who has worked for the BBC, Time and Bild, is the only journalist amongst the defendants. He was arrested on August 14th 2013 while on assignment for photo agency Demotix, as he approached Rabaa Al-Adawiya square in Cairo’s Nasr City district. That morning, Egyptian security forces launched a bloody assault on the square, the site of a month-long protest by supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, ousted by the military six weeks earlier. By the end of the day, Human Rights Watch estimates at least eight hundred civilians had lost their lives, and Shawkan was incarcerated.
 
Abu Seif is currently in the USA campaigning on Shawkan’s behalf: “Even if Egypt will not release Shawkan and other unjustly jailed journalists for the right reasons, perhaps they will do so to protect their own self-interests. Egypt receives over $1 billion in aid each year from the US provided they adhere to certain human rights conditions. By detaining Shawkan for over two years without trial, not only is Egypt breaking its own law but is also violating their agreement with the US and most likely other nations.”
 

Al-Fakharany was arrested on August 25th 2013, and originally charged with “disturbing the peace” as part of a separate mass trial involving senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those charges were later “substituted” by the Prosecutor General, while Fakharany remained in custody.

 

After a year-long trial, Al-Fakharany and a number of other media workers, including Rassd colleague Samhi Mustafa, were sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of “spreading chaos”, “spreading false information” and “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”, in a plot that allegedly involved attacks on police stations and churches. One further journalist, Ibrahim al-Taher al-Sayed, was sentenced to death.

 

Egypt’s Court of Cassation last week ordered a retrial in Al-Fakharany’s case, accepting appeals from thirty-eight of the defendants.

 

The Muslim Brotherhood had been the dominant opposition voice in Egypt for decades before surging to power in the 2012 elections that followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Since the military overthrow of their victorious candidate, Mohammed Morsi, a year later, the Brotherhood has been banned and designated a terrorist organisation, and membership of the group is a charge routinely levelled at journalists in Egyptian courtrooms. Peter Greste, the Australian jailed for over a year for his work with Al Jazeera in Cairo, was accused of membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, a charge he decried in court as “frankly preposterous”.

 

Egyptian journalists have found themselves in the crosshairs of the state’s security apparatus since the military coup, collateral damage in Sisi’s attempts to ward off an Islamist insurrection. The Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo claims that 32 media workers are currently incarcerated, and their own board member Khaled al-Balshy was recently released from custody pending investigation, having been charged with inciting unlicensed protests and “assaulting security forces”.

 
The Journalists’ Syndicate has launched an appeal for increased medical treatment for those journalists detained, and are making Shawkan the focus of their campaign. Shawkan, who has contracted Hepatitis C since his imprisonment, and has complained of violent treatment at the hands of the prison authorities. He was rushed to Cairo’s Kasr El Aini Hospital twice in two days in late October, and in a letter from August, described growing used to his “skinny, pale body”. He refers to Tora prison as his “cemetery”.
 
The letter: 
 

Mr President,

 

We, the undersigned journalists, are writing to ask for the release of our colleagues currently being held in Egyptian prisons. According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, at least 23 journalists are behind bars in Egypt because of their work.

 

Among them is photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, who has been detained since August 14th 2013.

 

Shawkan is a respected professional who has worked for the BBC, Time, Die Zeit and Bild. He was arrested on August 14th 2013 while on assignment for the photo agency Demotix, covering the Rabaa Square sit-in. He and his co-accused were held without charge for two years. When their imprisonment reached the two-year legal limit on pre-trial detention, the case was suddenly referred to trial, now due to begin February 2016. He is the only journalist in the mass case.

 

Shawkan has been diagnosed with hepatitis C and his health is deteriorating in prison. He has been denied medication and his weight is dropping every day. He is unlikely to survive to the start of the trial  unless he is transferred to a hospital immediately. His lawyers have appealed to the Public Prosecutor for his release on medical grounds at least 17 times.

 

Abdullah el-Fakharany is a member of the Rassd News Network board. He was arrested on August 25th 2013 in what has become known as the ‘Journalists Case’. Fakharany is a talented journalist who had been invited to Germany by the German Foreign Office and who participated in several trainings by the German media organisation Deutsche Welle (the DW Academy). Fakharany furthermore has been accepted as a member of the International Press Institute. He was charged with spreading false information, though those charges were later substituted, and in April 2015 he and twelve others were sentenced to life in prison. His life sentence was reversed on December 3rd but he was not released pending a new trial. He is still at risk of a new life sentence.

 

Mr President, we are calling on you to release all journalists who are behind bars because of their work. Egypt’s own constitution guarantees freedom of the press, and prohibits prosecutions based on a journalist’s work. The arrest of these reporters has cast a cloud over press and media freedom in Egypt. We strongly believe that upholding the rights of journalists and permitting the free flow of information is vital to bringing about greater understanding and serves the best interests of all Egyptians and the world.

 

Sincerely, 

 

Salma Abu Khalil, freelance journalist

Shahira Amin, independent journalist/former deputy head, Nile TV

Zahi Alawi, journalist

Indira Aryal, correspondent The Oslo Times

Frankie Asare-Donkoh, President, Ghanaian PEN Centre & Secretary-General, PEN Africa Network

Assed Baig, journalist

B. van Blokland, journalist

Jan Born, senior investigative journalist Eenvandaag Daily News&Current Affairs

M. Cerit, Hoofdredacteur Zaman Vandaag

Francesca Cicardi, Correspondent in Cairo for the Spanish News Agency EFE

Jim Clancy, journalist (formerly CNN) Atlanta, GA

Miriam Cosic, journalist, Australia

Koert Debeuf, political analyst, contributing editor The Daily Beast

Adars Dhakal, copy editor The Oslo Times

Lyse Doucet, BBC Chief International Correspondent, Canada

Steve Dow, contributing journalist, Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper and The Monthly

Khaled Elsalakawy, Rassd News Network

Nourhan Yahia Fahmy, Daily News Egypt

Inigo Gilmore, journalist and filmmaker

Ricard Gonzalez, correspondent of El Pais in Tunis

Rik Goverde, freelance correspondent North-Africa

Alain Gresh, journalist & editor of Le Monde Diplomatique

Orla Guerin, BBC Middle East Correspondent

Sabah Hamamou, freelance journalist

Mohammed Jamal Hilal, journalist

Diana Hodali, freelance journalist Germany

Wael Hussein, BBC newsgathering Cairo producer

Tahir Imran Mian, journalist

Amr Khalifa, political analyst/journalist

Patrick Kingsley, Guardian foreign correspondent

Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!

Sophie  McNeill, video-journalist ABC Australia Middle East Bureau

Hatef Mokhtar, Editor-in-Chief The Oslo Times

Jonathan Moremi, freelance correspondent MENA/Germany

Bart Mos, journalist De Telegraaf

Mahmoud Mostafa, journalist

Serge Mouraret, freelance photographer

Aya Nader, journalist

Khaled Noureldin, Rassd News Network

Prabalta Rijal, chief international correspondent, The Oslo Times

Xandra  Schutte, editor-in-chief De Groene Amsterdammer

Thomas Schwarz, journalist and author

Nuria Tesón, freelance journalist

Robert Trafford, freelance journalist

Daniel Wickham, op-ed writer for al-Araby al-Jadeed English and founder of the LSE Middle East Society

 
 

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