The conviction—for murder and membership in a terrorist organization—handed down to photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, is an absurd injustice, and while his imminent release is long overdue and will be a great relief, the requirement that he report daily to police for the next five years is an unwarranted infringement on his rights that should be immediately reversed, PEN America said in a statement today.

Shawkan was today convicted on charges of murder and membership in a terrorist organization and sentenced to five years in prison.  As he has already been in detention for five years, he is due to be released in the coming days, but will remain under “police observation,” meaning he is required to report to police each day for five years.  Shawkan was arrested on August 14, 2013 while documenting the government’s violent dispersal of protesters at Rab’a Al Adweya Square that killed over 1,000 civilians. When detained, Shawkan was taking photos on behalf of U.K.-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix. He was arrested alongside two foreign journalists who were released shortly thereafter. Since his arrest, Shawkan has been held in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison, where his health has reportedly deteriorated significantly. After being illegally detained for over two years, he was officially charged in September 2015 with a series of baseless and arbitrary offenses including weapons possession, illegal assembly, murder, and attempted murder as part of a mass trial for over 700 defendants. In March 2018, the prosecutor requested the death penalty in his case. On June 27, PEN America joined more than 20 other human rights and professional journalists’ organizations in a public statement urging U.S. government officials to call on Egyptian authorities to drop the charges and immediately and unconditionally release Shawkan, as well as other imprisoned journalists.  Sentences were handed down today to 734 individuals in the trial, including Shawkan; they included 75 death sentences.

“While we are deeply relieved that Shawkan will soon walk free, his unjust and illegitimate detention for his work as a photojournalist has been a gross violation of his rights and ability to work freely, and his conviction is an absurdity,” noted Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “Shawkan’s arrest for doing his job was emblematic of the Egyptian authorities’ extreme disregard for freedom of expression and of the press.  We look forward to his imminent release, but call on the Egyptian authorities to remove immediately all further restrictions on his rights and freedom of movement.”

Freedom of expression and the press in Egypt have deteriorated dramatically over the past 5 years under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule. The government has curtailed freedom of expression by, among other methods, instating a harsh anti-protest law, leveling falsified charges to quash media outlets that confront the established national narrative, introducing a law that fines journalists for reporting “false news,” and prosecuting individuals who express different religious or political viewpoints with punishments of fines, harsh prison sentences, or even death sentences. As of the end of 2017, there were 20 journalists imprisoned in Egypt, and in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 ranking of press freedom, Egypt was listed at 161 out of 180 countries. PEN America has advocated on behalf of other journalists and creative artists prosecuted for their work, including writer Ahmed Naji, PEN America’s 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award winner, and lyricist Gahal El-Behairy, who is currently also on trial.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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