Mahmoud Abu Zeid, more commonly known as ‘Shawkan’, wrote in December 2014, after having been detained arbitrarily and in breach of national and international law for 500 days, that life had become “…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 twenty two hours each day locked in this small, dark cell with twelve 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.”
In 2013, Shawkan was, in his capacity as a photo-journalist, documenting the events of the actions taken to disperse the Raba’a square protest in Egypt. Actions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Egyptian citizens whose only offence was to exercise their right to lawfully protest against the military coup.
However, the Egyptian authorities took exception to his actions, and for nothing more than the taking of photographs, he was arrested and detained.
Three years later, not only is Shawkan, and many other journalists, still detained in prison without any domestic or international legal basis, and still awaiting trial, he may face the death penalty for those nonsensical charges for which he stands accused. Further, he suffers from Hepatitis C, his health is deteriorating, and he is denied much needed access to health-care and medication.
Shawkan’s life is in danger quite apart from the potential for the death sentence being imposed by an autocratic regime that controls a dependent judiciary.
Egypt has, since the military coup led by Abdel Fattah el Sisi, become one of the most dangerous environments in the world for journalists to work. In fact, up to December 2015, only China has imprisoned more, and it is a trend that shows no signs of abating under the dictatorial regime of the self appointed President Sisi.
Alaa Sablan, a previous employee of Al Jazeera was sentenced to death earlier in 2016, as was Asmaa Alkhatib, a journalist with the Rassd News Network.
The ‘Al Jazeera 3’ is further evidence of nonsensical political motivated charges being brought against those who have had the temerity to report on the state-wide crackdown on those who have, or are believed to have shown the merest element of dissent against the ruling regime.
The reality, is that Sisi’s Egypt has sought to destroy the free-press, and all but removed the democratic principles of free speech and freedom of expression.
In the three years that have passed since Shawkan’s arrest, he has been tortured, beaten over and over again in an attempt to elicit a confession to whatever baseless charges the Egyptian security services have decided upon, and yet, despite the worldwide condemnation of his and the treatment of others in a similar situation, the international community still welcomes President Sisi as a partner, welcomes his state visits, and continues to supply arms and thus the means to commit such mass human rights violations.
Egypt is not a democracy. Sisi is not a reformist. The military coup Government should not be a partner to the international community. Its actions should make us all shudder. It is repressive. The rule of law has collapsed. There is no right of protest; no freedom of expression; and all human rights protections and fundamental freedoms have been abandoned. However, the international community’s silence should not come as a surprise when one considers the inaction in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Myanmar, Bangladesh to name just a few.
Egypt has been in freefall for sometime already. I have called for greater focus on justice and accountability for some time. Earlier this year, I submitted an urgent petition of complaint on behalf of Shawkan to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges, UN Special Rapporteur on Summary and Extrajudicial Execution and UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, highlighting his plight and seeking their urgent intervention.
On 27 October 2016 the UN Working Group issued its opinion, concluding that Shawkan had been arbitrarily detained for the past 3 years, that he must be released immediately, and further, that he ought to be awarded appropriate compensation for his unlawful detention.
The response of the Egyptian Government has been one of wilful ignorance.
The opinion of the Working Group has not been acknowledged, and further, Shawkan’s ‘trial’ has been once more postponed, and thus once more he has been condemned to live in the most torturous of circumstances.
At every turn, Shawkan’s rights have been violated; he has been detained and interviewed without access to legal counsel, the courts have refused to enter legal documentation into evidence, he has been tortured, he has been denied medical treatment, he has been detained in excess of the maximum period permitted under the Egyptian Constitution, and yet it still continues.
It continues in part, because the international community have refused to address this situation with Egypt, and in particular, with ‘President’ Sisi. By refusing to condemn, and by refusing to raise these issues publically, and instead, receiving him and his government on official visits, seeking to increase trade, and in particular, increasing military and arms trade, Sisi’s crackdown and route to autocracy has been given tacit approval by the international community.
In the face of such support internationally, it is no wonder that Sisi feels that he can subject citizens to the most appalling of treatment simply because they have documented the goings on, or because they have dared to show an element of dissent.
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.
The answer is obviously not. If Shawkan can be detained for three years to face the death penalty for simply taking a photograph, the expression of my opinion in the press would certainly not be tolerated.
For that reason, regardless of any others, Sisi, and Sis’s Egypt, must be condemned in the strongest terms possible, and action must be taken so as to enable the decision of the UN Working Group to be enforced and Shawkan’s release secured.
This article was originally published on 9th November 2016 at the Huffington Post.