Voices in Danger: A letter from an Egyptian photojournalist locked up in the ‘blackhole’

“I will be on the street again, recording... I miss my camera"


Friday was declared “A Global Day of Action” by Al Jazeera as the trial began for their three international journalists. But within the walls of Cairo’s largest prison, Tora Prison, also sit neglected local journalists who have little hope of seeing the inside of a courtroom anytime soon.  Voices in Danger managed to obtain contact with the incarcerated 27- year-old freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abu-Zied, affectionately known as Shawkan, who was beaten and arrested by police during the Rabaa demonstrations in August. A source close to Mahmoud snuck out his written account from Tora Prison for this report.

Mahmoud was on the front line photographing the clash between the police and the pro-Morsi protestors.  “The atmosphere was like we were in a war,” writes Mahmoud as he recalls the fateful day of his arrest.  “Bullets, tear gas, fire, and a lot of police soldiers and tanks were everywhere.  My Lord!  I saw all these police forces with guns and many of them took over the Square.”   When he identified himself as a photojournalist to police, he was beaten and arrested along with fellow freelance photojournalist Louis Jammes, and Mike Giglio at 9 a.m. on 14 August.

“They [police] beat us shamefully, and then tied our hands and took all the equipment from us.  After that, they took us, and the protesters, in a prisoner’s car to Cairo Stadium.  Our group got divided up, and Louis and Giglio were released after 2 hours.  The rest of us remained at the Stadium the rest of the day.”

He was treated like a criminal, he says, and the police beat him “very shamefully” every three hours.  All other 47 prisoners were also systematically beaten.  He recalls how “the room was dark” while they beat him about his face, and all over his body. All the prisoners were hungry, afraid and expecting to die.

After three long days, police officers stuffed the group of 48 prisoners into a small dark blue van and abandoned them to the sweltering heat of the Egyptian sun without water, food or fresh air.  He recalls the intense feeling of fear, “ I felt like I was kidnapped.  I still live with this feeling.  Actually, it’s not a feeling.  I’m really kidnapped, and waiting for when I can go back home.”


( “I sit in its [sic] for 3 days long, they were the worst days I lived in my whole life.”)

When he reflects on the day of his arrest, he writes, “I was just doing my job.  Why are the authorities detaining me?”  Mahmoud stands accused of 11 charges, including possessing weapons, inciting violence and of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Today, Mahmoud spends his days in Tora eating, reading and praying in what he calls,  “A blackhole, where all things are the same, and everything is black.”  But, he dreams of his release, and writes, “I will be on the street again, recording and shooting as a freelance photojournalist all the things that are happening on the street.  I miss my camera.”  He also has other plans when he is released: “I want to form a Committee that cares about freelancers, and them feeling more secure.”

From within the Istiqbal Wing of Tora Prison, Mahmoud signs off: “From the Blackhole, I send my greetings.”

In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Egypt the world's third deadliest country for journalists. At least five journalists were killed and 45 assaulted last year, according to CPJ. Security forces raided at least 11 news outlets that year.

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