Egyptian photojournalist freed after more than 5 years in prison must spend nights in a police cell

Award-winning Egyptian photojournalist, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, was released on Monday, March 4, having spent nearly six years in prison, however, he is not entirely free as he is required to spend every night, for the next five years in police custody.

The photographer, popularly known as Shawkan, received the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Freedom Prize in 2018, much to the dismay of the Egyptian authorities who accused him of “murder and membership of a terrorist organization”— charges that can carry the death penalty. Abu Zeid was arrested during his coverage of a bloody protest in the country in 2013.

Shawkan was jailed and put on trial alongside 739 defendants, most of them charged with killing policemen and vandalizing property during the 2013 protests. The trial of the 740 defendants is one of the largest mass trials since the 2011 uprising that toppled veteran president Hosni Mubarak. Shawkan’s arrest was condemned by International rights groups which demanded his release.

Last September, an Egyptian court gave Shawkan a five-year jail term. Given that he had already spent five years in prison from 2013-2018, the photojournalist was expecting a date for his release. He spent an additional five months in prison before his supposed release came with a caveat; he has to spend his nights for the next five years at a police station, a penalty he said he would challenge.

Amnesty International — which noted that since 2015, Egypt has orchestrated a sustained political attack against the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body that aims to monitor African states’ human rights records — condemned the court’s decision saying, Shawkan “should never have been forced to spend a single minute behind bars, let alone five and a half years”. Amnesty International described the decision as a “ludicrous” restriction of the photographer’s liberty and demanded it be lifted immediately.

The court also upheld death sentences against 75 of the 739 defendants arraigned with the journalist.

Meanwhile, Shawkan was quoted to have said, “All journalists are at risk of being arrested or killed while doing their work. I am not the first and I will not be the last.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Egypt 161st out of 180 countries on its press freedom index.