Almost three years ago today Mahmoud Abu Zeid, more commonly known as ‘Shawkan’, a photojournalist, wrote after having been detained for 500 days. “…endless nightmare inside this black hole that I am stuck in. The sunset has become a tiny strip through the iron mesh… I cannot see the sky clearly without an iron net and bars. I can only just see the sky from a small hole in the ceiling. Iron is taking over the place here. Heavy iron doors and a dark room like a dungeon… I spend 22 hours each day locked in this small, dark cell with 12 others. For two hours I am moved into a small cage under a sun that I can barely feel. This is my existence… I’m Mahmoud Abou Zeid, Shawkan.”
This week, Shawkan’s trial has been postponed by the authorities in Egypt for almost the 40th time. He has now been held in unlawful detention for over four years since his brutal arrest on 14 August 2013.
His day of arrest was to become known as the Raba’a massacre, the then 26-year-old Shawkan was working on an assignment for a UK based photo agency Demotix, documenting a peaceful demonstration on Cairo’s Raba’a al-Adawiya square. The protest was held against the backdrop of a military coup in July of that year. It is important to stress that Shawkan was not part of the protests. He, along with other journalists were taking photos of the protesters when the security forces opened fire into unarmed crowds, killing what is believed to be more than 800 civilian protestors.
Shawkan was arrested, along with French photographer Louis Jammes and U.S. journalist Mike Giglio, subsequently detained and beaten. The foreign journalists were however released shortly afterwards and only Shawkan was taken into detention, where he’s been held ever since awaiting his trial.
There have been campaigns for foreign journalists. The media attention related to the Al-Jazeera group resulted in their release. Recently, a dual Irish-Egyptian national was released following a campaign from human rights groups. Regrettably, Shawkan remains in prison in the direst of circumstances. He has been denied medical care which under international human rights law constitutes torture. He remains in a state of uncertainty as to whether he will ever be put on trial.
In August 2016, his prolonged pre-trial detention was investigated by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The working group, in its Opinion No. 41/2016 concerning Mahmoud Abdel Shakour Abou Zeit Attitallah (Egypt), (the Opinion is available here), found the following information as prima facie credible, coherent, fully supported and provided by a reliable source.
On 16 August 2013, Shawkan was questioned by a prosecutor without the presence of his lawyer. On 17 August 2013, Shawkan and other detainees who were arrested in relation to the protest on Rabaa Square were transferred to Abu Zaabal Prison. During the transfer, the police officers punched, kicked and beat Shawkan with batons. Together with dozens of detainees, Shawkan was handcuffed and abandoned in a van for seven hours without water, food or fresh air when the outdoor temperature was above 30°C. Reportedly, there were around 15 trucks full of detainees being left under the same conditions. 37 persons allegedly died due to the heat and poor ventilation in the trucks.
The above is the account of only the first three days of the horrors Shawkan was being subjected to. As of this day, he has spent 1,558 days in detention, some of them in a solitary confinement, and the rest in a two by four metre cell together with 12 other prisoners sleeping on a bare tiled floor. Despite being diagnosed (prior to his arrest) with Hepatitis C and anaemia, and suffering from the many wounds inflicted by torture, he has been deprived of any kind of medical treatment.
Unsurprisingly, the UN Working Group found his detention a violation of his human rights and his allegations credible. The allegations of torture were also found credible by the UN Working Group, based on the specific circumstances of this case, but also because of a pattern known in this country.
Egypt under President el-Sisi violates not only international law (as, according to President el-Sisi “Western” concepts of human rights do not apply to his country), but even its own legislation- Shawkan has been held in violation of Article 143 of Egypt’s Code of Criminal Procedure, which limits pre-trial detention to a maximum of two years. He was formally charged in March 2016 with murder, attempted murder, possession of weapons and illegal assembly (offences punishable by death). He has been interrogated on a number of occasions without the presence of his lawyers, his defence team has not been afforded any opportunity to challenge his detention, and denied access to key documents - all in breach of Egypt’s own criminal procedures. The fact that he is being subjected to a mass trial with 738 defendants further deprives the proceedings of any appearance of a fair trial.
Nothing has changed. Egypt is criminalising all forms of civic society and holds and tortures tens of thousands in illegal detention. President el-Sisi is welcomed in European capitals. Amnesty International and journalist organizations protest, the UN requests, people of good will send letters, tweets and prayers and in a tiny cell in Egypt’s Tora prison Shawkan, who recently spent his 30th birthday behind bars, withers by degrees.
Shawkan is but one individual, but he is one that has become almost talismanic, such is his situation, and a situation that is perhaps indicative of all that is wrong in today’s Egypt. For those that seek to question whether the methods adopted by Sisi and the Egyptian Security Services are appropriate, simply consider and then answer this question, could I write and publish this article in Egypt, free from arrest and persecution for doing so.