NEW YORK—The release of Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, after five and half years in prison, is a long overdue but welcome first step towards justice, PEN America said in a statement today.

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. After being 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 September 8, Shawkan was convicted on charges of murder and membership in a terrorist organization and sentenced to five years in prison, but was slated for immediate release due to time already served.  He was finally released on March 4, 2019 but remains under restrictive judicial controls, including “police observation” where he is required to spend 12 hours of each day, from 6pm to 6am, at a police station for the next five years. This condition is currently under appeal.

“Shawkan’s release is a glimpse of hope that justice in this case will finally be served,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Nevertheless, even as we celebrate this very welcome news, we continue to stress that he should not have served even one day behind bars for doing his job as a journalist, and we urge authorities to remove these extremely onerous conditions on his release. After more than five years of injustice, Shawkan deserves to be fully exonerated and free to resume his personal and professional life.”

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. Dozens of journalists, writers, and other creative artists are currently in jail. PEN America has advocated for Shawkan since his arrest. In June 2018, we 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. 


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.

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: [email protected]