The trial of photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid (known as Shawkan) and 738 others in the Rabea sit-in case was adjourned to February 6 to give the court time to prepare a larger room to accomodate all of the defendants.
Shawkan is due to stand trial for the first time after 800 days of pre-trial detention, and faces charges of illegal gathering, the show of force, illegal arms possession, premeditated murder, and deliberate vandalism of public and private property.
Among other defendants in the case is the supreme guide of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood group Mohamed Badie, among other Brotherhood leaders.
Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demanded the immediate release of Shawkan in open letters to the prosecutor general on Thursday, two days before his first court session was due to take place.
Amnesty said Shawkan’s arrest “exposes the rank hypocrisy behind [Egypt’s] claim to uphold press freedom,” and called for all charges against him to be dropped.
Shawkan was arrested on August 14, 2013, while covering the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in calling for the reinstatement of former President Mohamed Morsi. He was arrested with two foreign journalists who were later released, while he remained in prison.
“Mahmoud Abou Zeid is a prisoner of conscience who has spent more than two years — 848 days — in pretrial detention solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression,” wrote Said Boumedouha, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.
“This 28-year-old man should be free, not languishing behind bars as his health deteriorates. His journalism is not a crime,” he added.
Amnesty expressed “deep concern” over Shawkan’s detention in its letter, saying he risks life imprisonment on “trumped-up charges.”
It also cited Article 143 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which calls for the immediate release of any detainee held in pre-trial detention for over two years without being sentenced.
Shawkan has also been tortured and ill-treated in jail, according to Amnesty, while his lawyers have been denied full access to key documents in his case.
“He is facing a string of trumped-up and politically motivated charges, which appear to be designed to punish him for documenting the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, which led to the killing of more than 600 protestors in one day, according to the findings of the June 30 fact-finding committee,” the letter said.
Amnesty has collected nearly 90,000 signatures in a worldwide petition calling for Shawkan’s release before his first court session. Shawkan recently wrote a letter of thanks to all those calling for his freedom.
In another letter to the prosecutor general, CPJ also voiced concern over several aspects of Shawkan’s case.
“Shawkan is being tried alongside more than 700 other defendants, which can only harm the chances of the court recognizing that he was arrested in the course of his work as a journalist,” the letter said, citing mass life sentences and death penalties handed down in cases that involved fewer defendants.
Some harsh sentences are overturned on appeal, CPJ said, but “this can hardly be considered justice, nor should it be the course that this young photographer and his family must hope for.”
“No one can give Shawkan back the more than 850 days of his life spent in jail,” the letter read, “where, according to his family, his health is deteriorating.”