Open Letter to the Egyptian Ministry of Justice
To His Excellency Omar Marwan, Egyptian Minister of Justice:
We, the undersigned, call for an open and transparent investigation into the jailing and death of Shady Habash, a 24-year-old filmmaker who died in custody earlier this month. Furthermore, we call on you to immediately release all artists and writers in pre-trial detention for merely exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Habash died while being held in the maximum-security Tora Prison on May 2, 2020. Arrested in March 2018, he had been in pre-trial detention for 793 days, despite the fact that Egyptian law only allows a maximum of two years’ pre-trial detention. Such detention is meant to be an exceptional measure of last resort to hold suspected criminals that authorities believe pose an imminent threat if released. All Habash did was direct a music video. His case never went to trial, nor was he charged with a crime.
The public prosecutor issued a statement on May 5 claiming that Habash died from drinking sanitizing alcohol, thinking it was water, and a state autopsy report on May 11 allegedly confirmed the cause of death as alcohol poisoning. Such reports have several apparent inconsistencies, including whether Habash knew he was drinking alcohol and when—or if—doctors decided to transfer him to an external hospital. Even if the reports are taken at face value, Tora Prison officials were apparently medically negligent in their lack of response. Habash’s fellow inmates reportedly yelled and made noise from their cell for hours while Habash was dying, to no avail. Habash’s family deserves the truth about the circumstances surrounding his death––and why he was illegally detained in the first place––which can only be achieved through a thorough and proper investigation.
Habash was one of eight people who were detained in March 2018 for their reported involvement in exiled musician Ramy Essam’s song, “Balaha,” which criticized the Egyptian government and was released in February 2018 on YouTube. However, Habash played no role in developing the song’s content and only directed the accompanying music video. We remain seriously concerned about the continued pre-trial detention of Mustafa Gamal, who merely verified Ramy Essam’s Facebook page, and Galal El-Behairy, who penned the lyrics to “Balaha” and remains behind bars, serving a three-year sentence.
It is our contention that these arrests were a grave infringement of freedom of expression, contrary to both international and Egyptian law. But these are not the only cases that––we fear––represent deepening repression of free expression and artistic freedom in Egypt. In recent years, we have seen a disturbing trend in the number of artists, journalists, and writers held in pre-trial detention in Egypt for expressing their views, including:
- Alaa Abdel Fattah, a 38-year-old blogger and activist detained in September 2019––after a number of past arrests––who remains in pre-trial detention today without charge. He is currently on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions, raising serious concerns about his well-being (UPDATE: Fattah recently suspended his 36-day hunger strike).
- Solafa Magdy, a 33-year-old freelance reporter arrested in November 2019 who remains in pre-trial detention today without charge, alongside her husband, journalist Hossam el-Sayyad.
- Shady Abouzeid, a 27-year-old satirist, video blogger, and former television personality, who is currently in pre-trial detention without charge.
While we also understand that your office is taking strides to ensure public health in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic does not justify the suspension of fair trial guarantees––as both the World Health Organization and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have affirmed. In fact, there is a profound public health argument toward releasing pre-trial detainees simply to lower the rate of coronavirus transmission in prison.
Habash’s case has sent a heartbreakingly clear message to artists and writers throughout Egypt: Independent expression may lead to years-long illegal detention, and even death, in custody.
Your Excellency, we strongly urge you to release all artists and writers currently held in pre-trial detention for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression, especially in light of COVID-19, which now ravages prisons around the world. Likewise, we demand a proper investigation into Shady Habash’s death and illegal detention. If he had been set free, he would still be with us today.
Africa Human Rights Network (AHRN)*
Aid A – Aid for Artist in Exile
Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI)
Artist Protection Fund
Artists at Risk (AR)
Art Moves Africa
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)
Avant-Garde Lawyers (AGL)
Belady U.S.: An Island for Humanity
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
Danish Film Directors
Der Bundesverband Regie (BVR)
Directors Guild of Flanders | Unie van Regisseurs
Directors Guild of Norway
Documentarist ıstanbul Documentary Days
Dutch Directors Guild
European Film Academy
European Music Council
Festival international Signes de Nuit
Hamburger Stiftung für politisch Verfolgte | Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted Persons
Hammerl Arts Rights Transfer (HART)*
Human Rights Film Network (HRFN)
Index on Censorship
International Arts Rights Advisors (IARA)
International Documentary Association (IDA)
International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA)
International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH)
International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)
International Theatre Institute: Action committee for Artists Right
Ithaca City of Asylum
MENA Rights Group
Movies that Matter
National Association of Film Authors (ANAC)
On the Move (OTM)
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Safe Havens – the Malmö Meetings*
Société des Réalisateurs de Films (SRF)
Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)*
Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
The Federation of European Film Directors (FERA)
The Federation of European Screenwriters (FSE)
The Museum of Movements*
Which Human Rights? Film Festival