An Egyptian photojournalist, convicted of covering the Rabaa massacre in 2013, has been released after spending five years in prison.
Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, was freed earlier this morning from Cairo’s Khalifa Police Station. He celebrated his release by uploading a photo onto social media, with the hashtag #ShawkanisFree; activists had long called for his release with the hashtag #FreeShawkan
— Shawkan شوكان (@ShawkanZeid) March 4, 2019
Last September, Shawkan was convicted in a mass trial of a series of charges, including attempted murder, attacking police, burning public and private property among more; he denied all accusations.
Egyptian activists and international journalists have stood in solidarity with Shawkan since his detention, posting pictures of themselves on social media posing as if they are holding a camera, followed by a text saying “journalism is not a crime”.
Amnesty International rejoiced at the news of his release, but condemned the fact that he had been detained solely for doing his job.
“Mahmoud Abou Zeid’s long overdue release brings to an end a painful ordeal for him and his family,” Najia Bounaim, the human rights group’s Middle East and North Africa director, said earlier today. “As a prisoner of conscience, he should never have been forced to spend a single minute behind bars – let alone five-and-a-half years.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed his release, but called on the Egyptian authorities to “end their shameful treatment of this photojournalist by removing any conditions”.
Shawkan was arrested in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya square on 14 August in 2013 while on assignment for the London-based photo agency Demotix. Over 1,000 people were killed that day as security forces violently attacked peaceful supporters of President Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, who was ousted by a military coup.
Two foreign journalists were arrested along with Shawkan, but they were subsequently released.
Shawkan and 738 other people were prosecuted collectively for the killing of 17 men, including seven police officers, as well as other charges including illegal gathering, incitement to break the law, and involvement in violence.
At their trial in September, 75 defendants were sentenced to death, 47 were given life terms, and 612 were sentenced to between five and 15 years. Shawkan could have been released then on time served, but a six-month term was added to his sentence because he could not afford to pay the fine.
In 2018, Shawkan was awarded the Press Freedom Prize by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO which said his detention was a human rights abuse. Egypt criticised the decision to give an award to someone accused of serious offences.
Rights groups accuse President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s government of a sweeping crackdown on journalists and dissent, with Amnesty International saying the mass trial “beggars belief”.