In this file photo, an Egyptian protests the government's crackdown on free expression to mark World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2016 (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)
In this file photo, an Egyptian protests the government's crackdown on free expression to mark World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2016 (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

Hunger-striking journalist injured in prison uprising

News of the hospitalization of an imprisoned photojournalist after security forces cracked down on an uprising in Borg al-Arab prison tops the list of attacks on the press last week in Egypt. Also last week: Two leaders of the Journalists’ Syndicate were sentenced to two years in prison each but remain free on bail; a presidential pardon included two journalists who had nearly completed their prison terms; a court ordered the release of Ismail Alexandrani, but the prosecution successfully appealed; and finally, Mahmoud Abou Zeid Shawkan was at last allowed to tell the judge hearing his case that he is a photojournalist.

Photojournalist hospitalized after prison uprising
Reports of violence emerged last week from Borg al-Arab prison, which is near the coastal city of Alexandria, after protests by prisoners demanding better conditions and an end to alleged abuse by guards. In response to the protests, prison authorities brought in security forces who used water canons, tear gas, and other measures to put down the uprising, according to press reports and testimonies from the families of prisoners. They also barred prisoners from family visitations or from leaving their cells for daily exercise.

Photojournalist Mahmoud Abdel Nabi was among the prisoners injured, according to rights activists. After being denied his weekly visitation on November 12, Abdel Nabi’s father was able to visit him on November 19, according to the press freedom group Journalists Against Torture Observatory. He found the journalist had been taken to the Borg al-Arab prison hospital with cuts and bruises, and was drifting in and out of consciousness. Before his hospitalization, Abdel Nabi had been on hunger strike to protest alleged abuse and bad conditions in the prison.

Photojournalist Abdelrahman Abdelsalam Yaqot, who works for the Alexandrian outlet Karmoz, was also jailed in Borg al-Arab prison.

Last week the prison authority began transferring hundreds of prisoners from Borg al-Arab to other prisons, including Gamasa prison and Minya prison, in response to the protests, according to press reports.

Presidential pardons include two journalists at the end of their prison terms
Television presenter Islam al-Behery and photojournalist Mohamed Ali Salah were among 82 prisoners who received presidential pardons last week. Al-Behery was serving a one-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy, which was scheduled to end on December 28. Salah, who was arrested in December 2013, is serving a three-year sentence on charges of protesting. His sentence was also due to end in December 2016.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s office formed a committee to review cases of youth detained on “political charges” as well as humanitarian cases in October, after President al-Sisi attended a National Youth Conference in the Sinai resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh.

Court orders release of journalist Ismail Alexandrani, prosecution appeals
A Cairo court on November 20 ordered the release of Ismail Alexandrani, a writer and researcher with expertise on the insurgency in northern Sinai, but the prosecution quickly appealed the decision, according to press reports. The appeal was accepted on November 22, meaning the journalist will remain in pre-trial detention for another 45 day period. Alexandrani was arrested in November 2015 upon arriving at Cairo International Airport. He is charged with belonging to a banned group and publishing false news.

Shawkan tells court he is a photojournalist
In an unusual move, a judge allowed imprisoned photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid to speak to him directly, according to the Journalists Against Torture Observatory, which observed the hearing on Saturday. Abou Zeid, who is better known as Shawkan, was escorted out of the glass cage in which he and the other defendants are held during court proceedings and brought before the judge’s bench. Judge Hassan Farid asked him one question: “What is your profession?”

Shawkan replied that he is a photojournalist and was taken back to the defendants’ cage. The court adjourned until December 10.

The journalist is being tried on charges of rioting and terrorism along with 749 other defendants in relation to the August 2013 dispersal of the Raba’a al-Adawiya sit-in. Shawkan was photographing security forces violently dispersing the protest when he was arrested. At least 800 people were killed in the dispersal of that protest, according to human rights groups.

CPJ will honor Shawkan, who has been in prison for more than three years, with its 2016 International Press Freedom Award on November 22.

Syndicate Leaders Sentenced
A court in Cairo on November 19 sentenced Yehia Qallash, the head of the Journalists’ Syndicate, and board members Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim to two years in prison on charges of harboring a fugitive, CPJ reported at the time. The court suspended the sentence, pending appeal, for a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$628) each.

Al-Balshy published a statement on social media after the verdict was announced. “I hope that this verdict will be dealt with as part of the larger issue of freedom of the press, at the heart of which are the cases of our imprisoned colleagues…I hope we will not be distracted from them as our priorities,” the statement read.

The three syndicate leaders spoke to reporters gathered at the Journalists’ Syndicate’s headquarters in central Cairo ahead of the verdict and said that the syndicate would hold an emergency meeting to figure out next steps.

The press have been banned from attending court hearings in the trial, which is based on charges brought by the public prosecutor during a May 2016 standoff between the syndicate and the government, after police raided the building to arrest two journalists who had sought sanctuary inside. The three still face charges of publishing false news about the raid.

Government-owned and international media reported that this was the first time a Syndicate chairman had been tried in the 75-year history of the institution.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The eighth paragraph of this text has been updated to include that a court on November 22 accepted prosecutors’ appeal of the court order to release Ismail Alexandrani.