March 4, 2019
By Mahmoud Mourad
CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian authorities on Monday released a photojournalist who spent more than five years in jail after covering a 2013 sit-in that ended with security forces killing hundreds of protesters.
Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, was detained in 2013 while taking pictures as security forces broke up the sit-in by supporters of Egypt’s ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi.
“I can’t describe how I feel … I am free,” he told Reuters by phone after being released at dawn on Monday.
Shawkan, whose case had been highlighted by the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO and human rights groups, was released because he had already served out his term before being sentenced. But he must still spend his nights for the next five years at a police station, a penalty he said he would challenge.
He vowed to continue with his work, saying: “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.”
The violent breakup of the sit-in was a key moment in the turmoil that followed the 2011 uprising, as the military led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi moved to assert its control after forcing out Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected head of state.
Sisi was elected president the following year and has overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent in which thousands of Islamist opponents, as well as scores of liberal activists and journalists have been imprisoned. Sisi and his supporters say they needed to stabilize the country following the upheaval triggered by the 2011 uprising.
The government says many protesters at the 2013 sit-in were armed and that eight members of the security forces were among those killed.
Shawkan was charged with belonging to a banned group and possessing firearms. He was sentenced to five years in prison last September in a mass trial which saw 75 people sentenced to death and more than 600 others to jail terms.
Shawkan denied the charges against him, saying he was simply providing freelance coverage of the protest for a British-based photo agency.
UNESCO awarded him its 2018 Press Freedom Prize and said his detention was an abuse of human rights.
Amnesty International said in a statement on Monday that Shawkan “should never have been forced to spend a single minute behind bars – let alone five and a half years”.
It described the requirement that he spend all his nights for the next five years as a “ludicrous” restriction of his liberty and said it should be lifted immediately.
(Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones)