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Freed journalist remains committed to media freedom

March 4, 2015 at 2:13 pm

After his arbitrary arrest in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square in 2013, during the massacre therein, Al-Jazeera journalist Abdallah Elshamy was imprisoned. He became one of thousands of innocent victims of the regime in Egypt’s prisons subject to daily beatings, solitary confinement and harassment; perhaps hardest of all, they have very limited access to and information about their families.

On Tuesday, 26-year old Elshamy spoke to a packed lecture theatre at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His talk was part of the campaign to free all of Al-Jazeera’s staff and others being held unlawfully by Egypt since the coup led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in July 2013. Journalists, protesters, activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with ordinary people detained at random, face few charges and have little if any access to lawyers and due legal process. Their detention can be extended almost arbitrarily every 45 days.

Describing his own arrest, Elshamy said that he was stopped by “security” personnel as the crowds were seeking shelter from the killing spree taking place. The officers looked at his passport and said that with so many varied visa stamps “he must be a spy”. He was held in four different prisons, being “welcomed each time with a beating”, which is, apparently, a common “initiation” in Egyptian prisons. He tried to hide his identity as an Al-Jazeera journalist; when the guards found out, they stole his wrist watch and beat him even more.

Everything in prison was arbitrary, from outdoor access through the length of time they were held to the brutality and no-notice transfers. He was imprisoned with at least a thousand protesters from Cairo’s squares.

“The situation [in Egypt] is getting worse and worse,” he said at SOAS, “economically, politically and regarding media freedom.” He cited as an example the postponement of April’s scheduled elections, for no apparent or stated reason. Corruption, a lack of accountability and government officials acting with apparent impunity are endemic across Egypt, claimed Elshamy. “They are the main issues in terms of human rights violations.”

There is no justice in the legal system when you are detained, he added, explaining that he was held for 304 days with no charge, and went on hunger strike for 149 days. That combined with the international #FreeAJStaff campaign made him “trouble” for the prison authorities.

Elshamy’s lawyer could not do much in the circumstances as the system was and remains corrupt; legal representatives themselves risk a prison sentence just for doing their job and no actual fair trial took place in his case. He was sent to the notorious Tura (“Scorpion”) maximum security prison where he spent 37 days in solitary confinement, only being released when his health deteriorated due to his hunger strike.

Irish-Egyptian citizen Ibrahim Halawa is being held in Egypt after attending the same pro-democracy protest in 2013 and hiding with his three sisters in a mosque when the massacre began. He is now facing trial and possible execution at the age of just 17. Along with 494 other detainees, he is charged with “causing deaths and criminal damage”. Like Elshamy he has been beaten, and he had medical treatment withheld for a bullet wound to a hand, which is now permanently disfigured. The Independent spoke to Maya Foa, the head of NGO Reprieve’s death penalty team, who said that the Irish government and the EU must do all they can to ensure Halawa’s return to his family in Dublin.

Two days ago the Egyptian government presented a list of 120 “newly-released” prisoners, upon which, according to Elshamy, there are several names of people who were actually released earlier. He is urging campaigners and NGOs to make a noise for those imprisoned in Egypt and give them a voice. In doing so he remains committed to journalistic freedom being essential in a free world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.