After more than five years, the Egyptian photojournalist and CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, was finally freed from Tora prison on March 4, 2019. However, he has spent every night since in police custody, due to the conditions attached to his release.
Shawkan was released under "police observation,” meaning that for five years he must report daily to a police station at 6 p.m., according to news reports. It is left to the discretion of the officer on duty as to whether he spends the night in the station’s cells, which so far has happened every time he has reported, according to a relative, who spoke with CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. The journalist is also prohibited from managing his financial assets and property for five years, according to news reports.
Because of the restrictions, Shawkan has been unable to work as a journalist, according to the U.K.-based Media Legal Defence Initiative, and a family member who spoke with CPJ in late 2021.
On October 10, 2019, Media Defence – which was at that time called the Media Legal Defence Initiative — sent an appeal on Shawkan’s behalf to the United Nation’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The appeal said that authorities were using excessive probation measures to further punish the journalist and prevent him from carrying on with his life or his work as a journalist. It said he is ill-treated and insulted, is regularly required to clean the police station under threat, and lacks bedding, food, or water.
In an email to Media Defence, dated November 1, 2019, the U.N. working group said that it sent a letter to the government requesting an update on Shawkan’s case. CPJ has been unable to determine if the government responded to the U.N. group.
Security forces first detained Shawkan while he was covering clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi during the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba’a Al-Adawiya in Cairo on August 14, 2013. Shawkan was initially held in a Cairo stadium with other protesters and foreign correspondents who were released the same day.
Shawkan contributed to the U.K.-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix and the digital media company Corbis. After his detention, Demotix sent a letter to the Egyptian authorities confirming that Shawkan had been covering the clashes for the agency, the photographer’s brother, Mohamed Abou Zeid, told CPJ.
On May 14, 2015, Shawkan appeared before a judge for the first time since his arrest, according to news reports. The judge renewed his pretrial detention, according to news reports. The journalist, whose lawyer was not present in court, told the judge about his arrest and denied the allegations against him.
Shawkan went on trial in December 2015 in a case that included more than 700 defendants. The photographer was charged with weapons possession, illegal assembly, murder, and attempted murder, according to court documents.
He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and his health deteriorated in prison, the journalist’s family told CPJ. In December 2016, Shawkan’s lawyer demanded the journalist’s release on health grounds and requested a forensic medical examination, Abou Zeid told CPJ. The forensic report, which prosecutors presented during a May 20, 2017 court hearing, said that Shawkan did not suffer from any health conditions and did not qualify for early release, his brother said. Later that year, when Shawkan’s father visited him in prison, the journalist told him he was suffering from blurry vision, shivers, insomnia, and loss of appetite, Shawkan’s brother told CPJ. Shawkan told his father the prison doctor recommended that he be given a blood transfusion, but his request to be transferred to a hospital was denied.
On September 8, 2018, a Cairo criminal court convicted Shawkan of murder and being a member of a terrorist group, and sentenced him to five years in prison and five years’ probation, according to news reports. The sentence included time served, his lawyer Karim Abdelrady told CPJ.
On November 12, 2018 the pro-government daily Al-Shorouk reported that it had obtained a court document that stated Shawkan would be kept in custody for an additional six months. Shawkan’s lawyer told CPJ that the additional sentence was for fines that a prosecutor said Shawkan failed to pay, for unspecified damages during the 2013 protests. The lawyer said he did not know the amount of the fines.
CPJ recognized Shawkan with an International Press Freedom Award in 2016.
As of September 2021, Shawkan has not had any new court appearances and there has been no change to his legal status, according to a family member who spoke with CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. The family member said that Shawkan’s health appeared to be stable.
The Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, the prison system, and the prosecutor general’s office, did not answer CPJ’s emails requesting comment on Shawkan’s case in September 2021.