Mostafa al-Aasar, a freelancer for the regional newspapers including Al-Quds and Al-Arabi, has been held in pretrial detention since February 2018. He was due for release in May 2020, but authorities renewed his detention as part of a new investigation on charges of allegedly inciting terrorist crimes from inside prison.
Police on February 4, 2018, arrested al-Aasar, a freelancer who also reports for the local news website Ultra Sawt, in Giza on his way to work with his friend and roommate Hassan al-Banna, an intern at the pro-government newspaper Al Shorouk Daily, according to his lawyer Halim Hanish, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), and news reports.
Cairo’s national security prosecutor charged the journalists with belonging to banned group and spreading false news, according to AFTE. Al-Banna was released on May 28, 2020, according to news reports.
Hanish told Al-Quds and Al-Arabi that the charges are related to al-Aasar’s work on a documentary film that was to be critical of President el-Sisi. The lawyer said that the investigation revealed that police recorded a call that al-Aasar made to a potential participant whom he wanted to interview for the documentary.
The lawyer said he planned to file a legal complaint against the government for violating the journalist’s privacy. Hanish said that the national security prosecutor called al-Aasar’s brother in for questioning two months before the journalist’s arrest, to inquire about al-Aasar’s work.
In his writing, al-Aasar criticized the lack of competition in the presidential elections in Egypt, politically motivated convictions, torture in Egyptian prisons, and the authorities’ blocking of news websites.
Al-Aasar was one of several journalists arrested as part of a larger crackdown and trial known as case 441, in which dozens of defendants in a mass trial face charges of spreading false news and being a member of a banned group.
The trial came as Egypt’s crackdown on the press deepened in 2018; authorities ratcheted up their rhetoric against media outlets as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ran for and won re-election. Government officials and media regulators threatened the media with fines and prosecutors detained journalists for allegedly spreading false news.
On May 7, 2020, the prosecutor general’s office ordered al-Aasar’s release, but on May 9, before the journalist had been let out, the office overturned the order as part of a new investigation, according to AFTE and news reports. The prosecutor charged al-Aasar with inciting terrorism from inside prison, and ordered his pretrial detention to be extended, according to those reports.
Prosecutors have repeatedly extended al-Aasar’s pretrial detention, including on September 16 by 45 days, according to Manar al-Aasar, al-Aasar’s sister who spoke with CPJ via messaging app. Al-Aasar is detained in Cairo’s Tora Prison Complex, according to the journalist’s sister.
In March 2020, the Ministry of Interior banned visitors, including family members and lawyers, from entering prisons as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19; since August 22, visitors have been allowed on a limited basis, according to news reports.
On September 10, Manar al-Aasar visited him in prison for the first time since the ban was imposed. She told CPJ that al-Aasar is not suffering from any health problems.
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 al-Aasar in September 2020.