600 days in jail for taking pictures: A letter from an Egyptian prison

Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International @HassibaHS.

For 600 days Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, a 27-year-old Egyptian photojournalist, has been holed up in a small cell in the infamous Tora prison. His crime: taking pictures of the violent dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in in August 2013. He is one of dozens of Egyptian journalists arrested since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted on 3 July 2013. Six have been killed since then.

Here’s a harrowing letter that Mahmoud Abou Zeid sent from his cell:

“My life changed forever on the morning of Wednesday 14 August 2013. I was taking pictures of people protesting on the streets of Cairo when police came and locked down the streets. Thousands of people were immediately arrested – not only Morsi supporters, but also dozens of people caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was like a Hollywood movie. It felt like we were in the middle of a war. There were bullets, tear gas, fire, police, soldiers and tanks everywhere. I saw how armed police took over the Square. After identifying myself to the police as a photojournalist, I was arrested along with fellow freelance French photojournalist Louis Jammes and American journalist Mike Giglio.

The Mokhbers (low-ranking police that doesn’t have uniforms) tied our hands behind our backs with a plastic ligature that is used in wars. I was beaten by two men. They used closed fists and even my own belt. They stole my camera, my mobile phone, my watch and all of my personal belongings. Then, they put us and several protesters in a car and took us to Cairo Stadium.

The Mokhbers (low-ranking police that doesn’t have uniforms) tied our hands behind our backs with a plastic ligature that is used in wars. I was beaten by two men. They used closed fists and even my own belt.
Shawkan

“I thought I was going to die”
Our group was then divided. Jammes and Giglio were released after just two hours. Those of us remaining were kept at the Cairo Stadium for the rest of the day and were transferred to a police station later. My hands were still tied behind my back -- my wrists bleeding from the tightness of the plastic ligature. I can still see the scars.

At the police station, I continued to be treated like a criminal.

I was put in a very small cell with other 39 prisoners. The cell was very hot with all 40 of us in it. I had no place to sit and it was impossible to breathe. There was no ventilation. I was not given anything to eat or drink during the three days I was held.

The police officers were telling each other how to beat and torture us to cause more pain and harm. I was very afraid and thought I was going to die. Each hour they came and continued to beat me with all kinds of things. These were easily the worst days of my life. It even hurts me to remember them.

Five officers beat me at the same time with a belt and their fists, and kicked me with their boots. I dropped to the floor but they did not stop. I tried to close my eyes but was hit on them with the metal belt buckle. I lost the ability to see light and was almost blinded. Everything was dark.

I did not receive any medical treatment for my injuries, only beatings.

Transfer to Abu Zabal prison: “We couldn’t breathe”
After three long days in the police station, police officers packed us all into a small dark blue van. We were handcuffed together in pairs and crammed into the back of the van. The van was already full by the time my turn came to get in.

Things worsened once we reached the forecourt of the prison. The police locked the door of the van and abandoned us for seven hours to the sweltering heat of the Egyptian sun without water, food or fresh air.

Inside the van, in the midday heat, prisoners reached breaking point. Many were delirious and some were giving each other messages for their families in case they died. There were around 15 trucks waiting in the forecourt and each one took time to unload. We were in the third van. We couldn’t breathe given the high temperature and the very poor ventilation inside the truck. All of us were waiting to die. I felt like I had been kidnapped not arrested given the treatment I was facing.

Thirty seven prisoners died in the van behind ours. I heard them screaming after the police shot tear gas inside their van, and saw the look on the faces of those around me in the van I was in. Many of us were lost, powerless to help. We laid down, unable to take a breath. I felt like I was dying as I listened to the prisoners around me praying and gasping for air. After seven hours of torture, the police opened the iron door to go into the prison. I was transferred to Tora Prison four month later, where I have been held for 600 days on pre-trial detention for taking pictures.

“Our dignity was left at the prison gates”
Tora Prison is like a cemetery. I sleep on a cold tiled floor, my belongings hanging on a nail in the wall over my thin mattress. There is a tiny “kitchen” where we prepare our food. We have a single element electric cooker, which we also use for warmth in the winter months. The “kitchen” is adjacent to a squat-down drop toilet, which is basically a hole in the concrete floor. Both areas are separated by a hanging blanket to try and provide a sense of privacy. Our dignity was left at the prison gates.

I share a cell that measures three by four metres with 12 political prisoners. We have no access to sun or fresh air for days or weeks at a time.

My detention has been renewed ever since my arrest for 600 days. I have not been charged with any crime. I have been imprisoned without any investigation into the fabricated charges I am facing.

I am a photojournalist, not a criminal. My indefinite detention is psychologically unbearable. Not even animals would survive in these conditions.”

Amnesty International is campaigning for Mahmoud Abou Zeid’s immediate and unconditional release as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for his work as journalist.

Read more:
Egypt: Egyptian photojournalist interrogated (Document, 27 February 2015)

Egypt: Photojournalist held a year without charge: Mahmoud Abu Zied (Document, 29 September 2014)