The Impact Litigation Project Submits Case to U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Seeking Release of Egyptian Photojournalist 

Mahmoud Abou Zeid ‘Shawkan,’ photo courtesy of "Freedom for Shawkan"


On Dec. 9, 2015, the Impact Litigation Project of the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law has submitted an urgent action and petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of Mahmoud Abou Zeid ‘Shawkan’, an Egyptian photojournalist, who has been detained in Egypt since 2013, in violation of domestic and international law. 

The petition seeks release of Shawkan and calls for the working group’s attention to numerous Egyptian and international law violations in the photojournalist’s case. Through the Impact Litigation Project, four American University Washington College of Law students, Kendall Niles, Antonia Bird, and Shayan Davoudi among them, researched the details of the case and drafted the petition. Professor Macarena Saez, director of the project and the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at the law school, supervised the students’ work.

Shawkan is being charged in the “Rabaa Dispersal Case” with 739 other defendants. At the time of his arrest, Shawkan was covering the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in Rabaa al-Adaweya Square for Demotix, a news agency he worked for. Shawkan was arrested on August 14, 2013 at 7 a.m. and remains in detention, kept in the prison cell 23 hours a day and deprived from medical treatment for hepatitis C and anemia.

The first hearing of the trial was initially scheduled for Dec. 12, 2015 and postponed until February 2016. Egyptian law allows for a maximum of two years of pre-trial detention for suspects of crimes punishable with the death penalty or life in prison. Not only does two years of pre-trial detention exceed any international standard for pre-trial detention, but authorities have arbitrarily kept Shawkan beyond the two years. In some cases, Shawkan’s detention was renewed for an additional 45 days, despite prison security failing to bring him and other defendants to court, resulting in a postponed hearing. Other times, Shawkan’s lawyers were not able to attend the hearing because security or members of the public prosecution barred them. 

“The Egyptian government should immediately release Shawkan and drop the trumped up charges he is facing,” says Saez. “The continued detention of Shawkan is a clear example of Egypt's crackdown on free press in the name of battling terrorism. Being held in sordid conditions in Tora Prison, Shawkan’s health and well-being is at imminent risk.”

Pre-trial detention is used as a punitive measure against political prisoners and members of any opposition group, including civil society. Journalists are specifically targeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in June 2015, stated that the 19 journalists being held in Egypt’s prisons is at an all-time high. One month later, there were 23.