‘It is as if I am flying’: Egyptian journalist freed from jail after almost six years

‘It is as if I am flying’: Egyptian journalist freed from jail after almost six years

The award-winning Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid has been released from prison after spending nearly six years behind bars following his arrest while covering a bloody crackdown on protests. The photographer, widely known as Shawkan, faces five years of strict supervision and will be required to sleep at his local police station every night, but…


The award-winning Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid has been released from prison after spending nearly six years behind bars following his arrest while covering a bloody crackdown on protests.

The photographer, widely known as Shawkan, faces five years of strict supervision and will be required to sleep at his local police station every night, but he vowed to resume his work.

Last year Abu Zeid received Unesco’s World Press Freedom prize for his “courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression”, dismaying the Egyptian authorities who accused him of “terrorist and criminal acts”.

Speaking at his home in Giza, he said the first moments of his release felt “as if I was flying”.

Imprisonment “was an experience that I can never forget,” the 31-year-old said. “It’s bitter but it lets one look at life from a different perspective, a new perspective that one can’t see except from this place,” he said.

He said he was determined to return to his career despite the restrictions placed on him.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid, pictured after his release, will be required to sleep at his local police station every night.

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Abu Zeid, pictured after his release, will be required to sleep at his local police station every night. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

His mother fears his journalism will expose him to more risk.

“As a mother I always urge him to stay out of trouble … but he always says journalism is in my blood,” said 61-year-old Reda Mahrous.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Egyptian authorities “to end their shameful treatment of this photojournalist by removing any conditions to his release”.

Abu Zeid said he would take legal steps to try to end the restrictions.

He was detained in August 2013 while covering clashes between security forces and supporters of the ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, that turned into a bloodbath in which hundreds of demonstrators died.

“We were arrested in the first 30-40 minutes (after the clashes started). We were stripped of our equipment,” he said. “The others were released two hours later … I left my home to take photos and I didn’t return for five and half years.”

Abu Zeid was put on trial along with 739 defendants, most of them charged with killing police and vandalising property.

It was one of the largest mass trials since the 2011 uprising that toppled the veteran president, Hosni Mubarak.

In September an Egyptian court upheld death sentences against 75 defendants and gave Abu Zeid a five-year jail term – which covered the time he had already served – but he remained in jail awaiting his release.

Abu Zeid was accused of “murder and membership of a terrorist organisation” – charges that can carry the death penalty – sparking condemnation from international rights groups which demanded his release.

Mahmoud Abu Zaid is hugged by his parents.

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Abu Zaid with his parents. Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP

Amnesty International said at the time he had been convicted “simply for doing his job as a photojournalist and documenting the police brutality that took place that day”.

Amnesty hailed his release but denounced “the ludicrous probation measures” which will require him to spend the night at a police station for the next five years.

Another 214 people who were sentenced in September to five years in prison were freed from prison on Monday.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former army chief, was elected in 2014 nearly a year after leading the military’s overthrow of Morsi following mass protests against the Islamist’s year-long rule.

Sisi, who critics say has carried out a widespread crackdown on dissent, was re-elected in March 2018 after securing more than 97% of the vote in the absence of any serious competition.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Egypt 161st out of 180 countries on its press freedom index.

More than 30 journalists are still in prison in Egypt according to the rights group.

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