The decision by an Egyptian court to refer the case of a photojournalist to a criminal court while extending his pre-trial detention, represents yet another hefty blow to human rights and the rule of law in the country, said Amnesty International. Mahmoud Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, is among hundreds who have been held in pre-trial detention for more than two years across the country.
“The decision to extend the detention of Shawkan until the criminal court sets a date for the trial, is disgraceful and a blatant violation of international human rights standards. It also contravenes the Egyptian constitution and national law which limits pre-trial detention to an already prolonged period of two years if the detainee is not sentenced within that period” said Said Boumedouha, Acting Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“By arbitrarily detaining hundreds of people for lengthy periods pending trial, the Egyptian authorities are sending a clear message that they will stop at nothing to quash all signs of dissent – even flouting their own laws in the process.”
By arbitrarily detaining hundreds of people for lengthy periods pending trial, the Egyptian authorities are sending a clear message that they will stop at nothing to quash all signs of dissent – even flouting their own laws in the processSaid Boumedouha, Acting Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International
Shawkan was arrested on 14 August 2013 while he was taking pictures during the violent dispersal of the Rabaa al-‘Adaweya sit-in by the Egyptian security forces. Up to 1,000 people were killed on that day across Egypt. He was among hundreds of people, including many supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, arrested that day.
“Shawkan’s only ‘crime’ was taking photographs as part of his legitimate work as a journalist – his unlawful detention for more than 700 days is simply outrageous. He is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression, he must be released immediately and unconditionally. All the charges against him must be dropped,” said Said Boumedouha.
Shawkan’s only ‘crime’ was taking photographs as part of his legitimate work as a journalist – his unlawful detention for more than 700 days is simply outrageousSaid Boumedouha
Shawkan’s lawyers told Amnesty International that the public prosecutor informed them that he had in fact been referred to the criminal court on 11 August 2015, when it was announced that Mohamed Badie, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure and 400 others were also referred to the criminal court.
His lawyers have been denied access to key documents related to the case including the prosecutor’s referral decision which includes a list of charges, number of defendants, and penal code provisions applicable in the case, undermining their ability to prepare their defence. They also told Amnesty International that the prosecutor had initially denied that Shawkan was among those referred to trial last week and they were shocked to discover yesterday that his case was referred to the court with others.
The lawyers have submitted an appeal to the Court of Appeal calling for the immediate release of Shawkan as his detention has exceeded the legal limit of two years in pre-trial detention under Egyptian law. The court is to rule on the appeal within the coming few days. At the time of his arrest, Shawkan was on assignment for Demotix, a photo agency, who confirmed to the prosecutor he had been working for them. At least 18 journalists are currently behind bars in Egypt simply for doing their jobs and exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Shawkan and 400 others detained in the same case were questioned in relation to a set of identical trumped up charges including “belonging to a banned group”, (the Muslim Brotherhood which the authorities later declared a “terrorist” organization), “possessing firearms” and murder. Shawkan denied having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and all charges against him during the prosecutor investigations two years ago.
His case has been flawed from the moment of his arrest. He was questioned by a prosecutor in the absence of a lawyer and suffered torture and other ill-treatment while he was held in an overcrowded cell at a police station in Cairo. Later he was transferred to Abu Zabaal prison where he was held for seven hours in a police van outside the prison in the sweltering August heat before being allowed inside, where he was once again beaten. He is now at the infamous Tora prison where he is held in very poor detention conditions. In a letter describing his dire detention conditions to Amnesty International published in April 2015, Shawkan said he was treated “like an animal in Egyptian prisons” and said his indefinite detention is “psychologically unbearable”.
He was also diagnosed with Hepatitis C before his arrest and his family have told Amnesty International he is being denied medication so his health is deteriorating. The family has also submitted many appeals to the prosecutor requesting his release on medical grounds without success.
The authorities also arrested 327 people a few days later on 17 August 2013 including Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish national and prisoner of conscience, after storming a mosque in downtown Cairo where he and other protesters had sought refuge. Today they will have been detained for two years and two days, also exceeding the pre-trial detention limit under current Egyptian law.
International law stresses that pre-trial detention must be a measure of last resort and may only be applied in specific cases if it is established that there is a substantial risk of flight, harm to others or interference with the evidence or investigation. There must be an ongoing examination of the continuing lawfulness and necessity of detention in each individual case. The Egyptian Code of
Criminal Procedures in its article 143 limits pre-trial detention to up to two years and orders the immediate release of a detainee if not sentenced within that period.“Locking hundreds of people up in pre-trial detention for two years or more without justification is clearly a punitive measure to silence those who dare to challenge the official narrative,” said Said Boumedouha.
The extension of Shawkan’s detention comes the day after Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signed a new “counterterrorism law” that will make it even easier for the authorities to hold detainees for long periods by giving the public prosecutor the power to detain people for investigation up to seven days renewable to similar periods without a limit. This effectively removes the two year limit prescribed under Egyptian law.
The law’s definition of what constitutes a “terrorist act” is overly broad and grants the authorities free rein to detain peaceful government critics, including journalists, on vague grounds. The law also effectively bans independent reporting by imposing hefty fines for journalists who report information or statistics about terrorist attacks that differ from what has been announced by the state.
Amnesty International sent a memorandum to the president on 12 August 2015 urging him to either drop the law or fundamentally revise it to bring it in line with the Egyptian constitution and international human rights law.
The government also introduced a draconian protest law in November 2013 with the sole purpose of muzzling freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and crushing all forms of dissent