The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed deep concern over the prolonged trial of detained photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid “Shawkan” in a Friday statement. “The Egyptian government’s treatment of Shawkan has been one outrage after the other,” CPJ’s senior Middle East and North Africa Research Associate Jason Stern said.
The Cairo Criminal Court decided Saturday to adjourn his session to 26 March, according to Shawkan’s defence lawyer Taher Aboul Nasr, following a Friday report on state-owned Al-Ahram initially stating that the trial would be adjourned to 4 April.
According to Aboul Nasr, Judge Hassan Farid changed the initial date for the session after it was revealed by the media prior to Saturday’s session.
“The scenario I had in mind today was to speak to the judge about releasing Shawkan,” Aboul Nasr told Daily News Egypt Saturday. “Unfortunately, this was not possible and it is my major concern. I want Shakwan to be released at any cost because, practically speaking, it seems that we will have a prolonged trial, for a year at least.”
Shawkan has been in detention since 14 August 2013 after being arrested while on the job covering the notorious dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in. He completed 900 days behind bars on 31 January.
“Shawkan has been punished for more than two years in remand. I am positive he has nothing to do with the violent incidents that took place that day. But it has already been two years, and still there is no progress,” Aboul Nasr said.
The photojournalist spent over 700 days in pre-trial detention, for which the maximum period is set to two years, according to the Penal Code. However Shawkan’s fate remained unknown for over a week following the end of the legal remand period, according to his defence lawyers.
It was not until mid-September that the court referral order was made public. It included Shawkan as the only photojournalist among 739 defendants, all facing charges of disrupting national security through violence, murder, attacking security forces and civilians, engaging in armed conflicts and destroying public facilities.
The case, publicly known as the “Rabaa dispersal trial”, includes the highest number of defendants since mass political trials for Muslim Brotherhood members started taking place following the 30 June uprising in 2013.
Shawkan’s family, journalists and human rights activists also advocated and demanded his immediate release. Judge Hassan Farid continues to postpone the trial under the pretext of lack of space at court to receive the large number of suspects.
According to Aboul Nasr, there was a court decision ordering the trial to be transferred from Tora Police Institute to Wadi El-Natroun prison to resolve the space issue.
“The official state excuse to postpone the trial is the lack of space in the glass cell, where the defendants are held during court sessions. So far, we do not know whether his next trial session will be held,” he told Daily News Egypt. He noted that the court did not actually hold a session, rather issuing an administrative adjournment decision.
Since the legal remand period of two years ended on 14 August 2015, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) stated that Shawkan’s “extra” detention period is considered “unlawful detention”.
AFTE lawyer and member of Shawkan’s defence team Ahmed Abdul Naby elaborated on legalities that, according to him, make Shawkan’s current imprisonment illegal.
The law set the maximum pre-trial detention period for two years. After that, the case should be referred to court and the suspect is detained pending trial. However, Abdul Naby explained that in order for the detention to be labelled as “pending trial”, an actual trial must be ongoing, meaning that a court session must be held with defence lawyers presenting their claims and demands to court.
Both Aboul Nasr and Abdul Naby condemned on the fact that this has not yet occurred. As such, AFTE has counted 176 days of illegal detention, in addition to the previous two years Shawkan spent in jail.
Given the current legal situation, the Prosecutor General has no authority over the release of Shawkan. “I believe this was a trick used by prosecution authorities,” Abdul Naby said.
Three days before the official two-year pre-trial detention of Shawkan ended, prosecution authorities referred the case to the criminal court. “As a result, Shawkan’s release request must be addressed and looked into by court, but how can we do that if the court is not holding any sessions?” he questioned.
Despite Abdul Naby’s expectation that the trial will take one or two years, Aboul Nasr said he was still hopeful about Shawkan’s release. “We are at a time where everything is possible,” he said.