Egypt on Monday released a photojournalist who spent more than five years in prison for his alleged involvement in a sit-in protest by supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the president removed by the military after protests in 2013.
Mahmoud Abu Zaid, better known as Shawkan, was detained at the site of the sit-in when security forces moved to break it up on August 14, 2013. The operation left hundreds of protesters dead along with about a dozen policemen.
Shawkan maintains he was there to take photos, but authorities accused him — along with several hundred others grouped in one case — of membership of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and a string of violent crimes.
“I was heading out to take photos. I come back to my home five years later,” he told reporters at his home in the Cairo district of Giza shortly after his release. He said he would continue to work as a photojournalist.
“I am not the first or the last journalist to be detained,” said Shawkan, whose image pretending to be taking photos from inside a courtroom’s defendants’ cage has come to symbolize his case.
Shawkan had been in prison for roughly five years already when a court in September sentenced him to five years in prison. He served an additional six months for failing to pay for damages allegedly caused by the protesters during the sit-in, his lawyer, Taher Abul Nasr, told The National.
He will be “under police surveillance” for the next five years, said Mr Abul Nasr, meaning that he must report daily to his local police station at 6 pm, spend the night there and walk free at 6 am the next morning.
Last year, Shawkan was awarded the Press Freedom Prize by the UN culture agency, Unesco. The Egyptian government denounced the move, saying his nomination for the prize came from non-governmental groups dominated by Qatar, which Cairo accuses of supporting radical groups across the region.
Amnesty International and the International Committee for the Protection of Journalists had taken the lead in urging the government to release him and maintaining that his detention was arbitrary.
The government insists that due process has been diligently observed in the case of all detainees and that security and stability for the nation's 100 million people are a priority.
The Committee to Protect Journalist welcomed Shawkan’s release but urged Egyptian to remove the conditions on his release.
Shawkan is far from the only journalist imprisoned in Egypt, the CPJ annual incarceration survey in 2018 found at least 25 media professionals were behind bars.
Turkey is the world leading jailer of journalists with 68 media professionals imprisoned and China takes the second spot with 47. Egypt sits at number three.
Egypt has toughened its laws around the press since 2011 and in July passed a bill to allow authorities to shut down social media accounts with 5,000 followers or more found to be spreading “fake news.”