NEW YORK—The decision by Egyptian prosecutors to seek the death penalty for photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as “Shawkan,” is an astonishing display of political theater at the expense of basic human rights and possibly the life of an innocent man, said PEN America in a statement today.

Shawkan is being tried as part of a mass trial alongside more than 700 defendants, and on March 3, it was reported, prosecutors requested the “maximum penalty”— death by hanging— for all of them. Shawkan’s lawyer has said he is facing charges including weapon possession, illegal assembly, murder, and attempted murder.  ​​

Shawkan was first detained on August 14, 2013 while documenting the government’s violent dispersal of protesters from Cairo’s Raba’a Square, an action which resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 civilians. He was arrested alongside two foreign journalists who were released shortly thereafter. 

“This show trial is in keeping with the Egyptian regime’s complete and consistent disregard for even the most basic norms of justice and human rights,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “As a dedicated photojournalist, Shawkan courageously attempted to document the truth, and it is ludicrous that he could face the death penalty for taking photographs. The charges against him are a travesty, and the authorities should release him immediately.” 

The case reflects Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on free expression ​and freedom of the press under President Sisi. 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 awarded its 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to Ahmed Naji, who was imprisoned in Egypt for “violating public modesty” after a citizen complained about sexual content in his novel, The Use of Life. Naji was released in December 2016, but he remains under a travel ban and in May 2017 a court ordered his case to be retried.  


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.


Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: [email protected]