Award-winning Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid was released on Monday after spending nearly six years in prison following his arrest while covering a bloody crackdown on protests.
The photographer, widely known as Shawkan, faces five years of strict supervision and will be required to spend every night sleeping at his local police station, but he vowed to resume his work. Shawkan last year received UNESCO’s World Freedom Prize for his “courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression”, dismaying the Egyptian authorities who accused him of “terrorist and criminal acts”.
Speaking at his home in Giza, he said the first moments of his release felt “as if I was flying”. Imprisonment was “an experience that I can never forget”, the 31-year-old said. New York-based Human Rights Watch welcomed Shawkan’s release while deploring the state of journalism in Egypt. “Since Shawkan’s arrest in 2013, Egypt has descended further into darkness and suppression of a free media,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa head. “While we joyfully celebrate his release, it’s also a reminder of how far Egypt has fallen since 2011,” when an uprising toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak and stirred hopes of a democratic awakening, she said in a statement.
Shawkan said he was determined to return to his career despite the restrictions placed on him. “I will continue my work as a photojournalist in Egypt,” he said. His mother said she feared his journalism would expose him to more risk. “As a mother I always urge him to stay out of trouble… but he always says journalism is in my blood,” said 61-year-old Reda Mahrous. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Egyptian authorities “to end their shameful treatment of this photojournalist by removing any conditions to his release”. Shawkan said he would take legal steps to try to end the restrictions. He was detained in August 2013 while covering clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi that turned into a bloodbath in which hundreds of demonstrators died.
“We were arrested in the first 30-40 minutes (after the clashes started). We were stripped of our equipment,” he said. “The others were released two hours later… I left my home to take photos and I didn’t return for five and half years.” Shawkan was put on trial along with 739 defendants, most of them charged with killing police and vandalising property. It was one of the largest mass trials since the 2011 uprising. In September, an Egyptian court upheld death sentences against 75 defendants and gave Shawkan a five-year jail term which covered the time he had already served but he remained in jail awaiting his release.
Shawkan was accused of “murder and membership of a terrorist organisation” charges that can carry the death penalty sparking condemnation from international rights groups which demanded his release. Amnesty International said at the time he had been convicted “simply for doing his job as a photojournalist and documenting the police brutality that took place that day”. Amnesty hailed his release but denounced “the ludicrous probation measures” which will require him to spend the night at a police station for the next five years. Another 214 people who were sentenced in September to five years in prison were freed from prison on Monday.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former army chief, was elected in 2014 nearly a year after leading the military’s overthrow of Morsi following mass protests against the Islamist’s year-long rule. Sisi, who critics say has carried out a widespread crackdown on dissent, was re-elected in March 2018. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Egypt 161st out of 180 countries on its press freedom index. More than 30 journalists are still in prison in Egypt, according to the media watchdog.