Photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid — popularly known as Shawkan — is going on a hunger strike to protest surpassing his maximum pretrial detention period of two years, the Free Shawkan Campaign announced at a press conference on Sunday.
Organized by the campaign and the Freedoms Committee of the Journalists Syndicate, the speakers at the conference emphasized that as the two-year mark has been passed, Shawkan is now being illegally detained.
Shawkan, a 28-year-old freelance photojournalist, was arrested while documenting the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Rabea al-Adaweya on August 14, 2013, that left several hundred dead. He was arrested alongside two foreign journalists who were quickly released, while he remained detained. Shawkan has spent more than 740 days in prison and has yet to be officially charged.
“In Egypt, it is illegal to hold somebody in pretrial detention for over two years, even under the new anti-terrorism law. They have to charge him, but that still hasn’t been done,” one of Shawkan’s lawyers, Karim Abdel Rady of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, explains.
“We have tried to launch an appeal to get him released on the grounds of the maximum pretrial detention period having expired, but we couldn’t get anybody to accept our appeal,” he says. “We went to the prosecutor’s office and they told us the case belonged to a different district and we had to file it locally. When we arrived at the other office, they told us to go to a different office again. Basically everybody kept telling us, ‘Go away, this is none of our business.’”
Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, sentenced on Sunday on charges of aiding a terrorist organization and disseminating false information, alongside two other Al Jazeera English journalists, set up a non-profit organization while he was on bail to support imprisoned journalists by providing funds for their legal fees. Established in March by Fahmy and his wife, Marwa Omara, the Fahmy Foundation for a Free Press, took Shawkan’s case on as its first one.
In the past two years, Egyptian authorities have arrested so many people that the legal system is having a hard time keeping up, Fahmy explained to Mada Masr in an interview in June.
“Cases that involve well-known activists, politicians and journalists are given priority, the rest ends up at the bottom of a pile in a forgotten drawer in some administrative office,” he says. “As a formality, every 45 days their pretrial detention gets extended. Thousands of people are kept behind bars this way. Some for weeks, others for months, Shawkan for years.”
An additional problem is a lack of cooperation between the different authorities.
“There is serious decentralization between the National Security Agency, the Interior Ministry and the General Intelligence Services,” Fahmy says. “There is hardly any communication between them. One agency goes out to arrest someone while the other has no clue why or what they are subsequently supposed to do with the suspect. Months ago, two National Security officers came to visit Shawkan in his cell and asked him ‘Why are you still here?’ They were surprised he hadn’t been sent home yet.”
Shawkan’s case was chaotic from the start. During one of the first hearings, the judge appeared after half an hour, and spoke for less than a minute before leaving again. His words were inaudible, because the microphone wasn’t switched on. Shawkan’s brother, Mohamed Abu Zeid, remembers asking the people around him whether anyone had any idea what the judge had said and nobody did.
Several hearings have taken place since, all equally chaotic. Sometimes the defendants are not even present, other times the meeting is adjourned without prior notice. In July, for instance, his lawyers were unable to attend the hearing because of a last-minute location change after the date had also been changed just a couple of days before.
At least 18 journalists are currently in Egyptian jails, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) — the highest number of media professionals to be detained at the same time since the organization started tracking arrests in the country in 1990.
Khaled al-Balshy, head of the Freedoms Committee at the syndicate puts the number at 35. He admits there is little more they can do for their colleagues than to keep making noise for them.
“Being a journalist is extremely difficult in Egypt at the moment,” he tells Mada Masr. “Very different ideas are held within the government when it comes to press freedom. Our colleagues are the victims of that internal rift.”
Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah al-Shamy spent 147 days on hunger strike to protest his pretrial detention and was ultimately released. American-Egyptian activist Mohamed Soltan was on hunger strike for 490 out of his 643 days in prison and was deported after renouncing his Egyptian citizenship.
In August 2014, there was a wave of hunger strikes in Egyptian prisons, including well-known activists associated with the January 25 revolution who were detained on charges related to the protest law, as well as detainees serving sentences related to pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests.
“Prisoners have been released before for health reasons when they went on hunger strike,” Yara Salah, Shawkan’s girlfriend and one of the people behind the Free Shawkan Campaign, tells Mada Masr. “Right now we see a hunger strike as Shawkan’s only hope. ‘This is no way to live, I might as well be dead’ he told me when I visited him last week.”
In a previous interview with Mada Masr, Shawkan’s brother said that Shawkan felt he was “forgotten behind prison walls.”
Salah explains that they have been consulting doctors on how to best go about going on a hunger strike. “There are certain things you can do to make sure your body lasts as long as possible. Shawkan has contracted Hepatitis C in prison so his health is already very frail,” she adds. “He is being denied his medication and is not allowed to see a doctor.”
Salah hopes the authorities will finally show some compassion for Shawkan when he goes on hunger strike. “Soltan’s situation was different from Shawkan’s because Soltan was charged and he also had a dual nationality that helped secure his release. Shawkan doesn’t have the support of a foreign embassy so this hunger strike really is a last resort. We hope he will eventually get released on medical grounds, just like Shamy.”