One year ago Egypt witnessed the bloodiest day in its recent history. On 14 August 2013 police forces moved to disperse two protest camps in support of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Human Rights Watch says at least 904 people were killed that day according to the group’s recent report released earlier this week.
The news came thick and fast that day, amidst gunfire and bloody scenes journalists were also under fire reporting from the field. Four died and others were arrested while covering the dispersals, including photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zied who remains in jail one year on, facing 12 charges including murder and possession of a weapon amongst others, according to his brother Mohamed.
Abou Zied, also known as Shawkan, was not comfortable going to Rabaa Al-Adaweya on 14 August following reports that other photographers had been assaulted by the protesters there, according to Louis Jammes, a French artist and friend of Shawkan, who was detained at the same time. Jammes told his friend that he had contacts in Rabaa Al-Adaweya, assuring him that he would be able to photograph freely.
The pair went early to the protest camp arriving as the sun came up, unaware that the dispersal, which had been threatened for weeks, was about to begin. “We went through all the checkpoints and then arrived at the scene of the sit-in, we photographed protesters who mostly were still asleep or awakening”, said Jammes. The pair walked around the sit-in photographing the various parts of the infrastructure set up by the protesters until they heard reports that the police were coming from three different angles of the sit-in, and only one area was still clear. It was 7.15am.
“Tension rose up a notch quickly,” said Jammes, “we photographed protesters preparing to attack but soon Shawkan wanted to leave the camp and join the police force”. Jammes explained that this was not his choice but rather that “Shawkan was not comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood” and as he did not want to be separated from him they went towards the police.
Jammes asked Shawkan twice if being behind the police lines “was really a good idea”, adding that he “had no confidence in the army unlike Shawkan who like many Egyptians believed Al-Sisi and the army wanted to save the revolution”. Indeed Shawkan had told Jammes in reference to Morsi’s ouster on 3 July: “It’s not a coup, it’s a revolution.”
Now at the front line of the security forces the pair was able to photograph the police’s advance towards the camp for around two hours, with local residents standing by and watching the scene unfold while others fled the area.
“After around two hours police began arresting people on the spot”, said Jammes, “none of them had taken part in the fighting”. At this point Shawkan and Jammes had met Newsweek Journalist Michael Giglio and all three were detained at the same time. “They hit us a bit, insulted us, and stole all our equipment”. They were handcuffed and then drove 20 minutes to Cairo Stadium, which the security forces used as a holding area for people that had been detained. In the truck Jammes noted that the people also detained were “bystander people descended from surrounding buildings trying to flee the area, and we three journalists or photographers, but no fighters”.
Inside the stadium Shawkan and Jammes were separated: “Egyptians on one side, me and Michael Giglio another… From that moment I was separated from Shawkan. I could not talk to him again”
Jammes and Giglio were questioned briefly and released, without their equipment being returned. Shawkan’s ordeal was just beginning.
He was first taken to Abou Zaabal prison but later transported to Tora Prison. In messages he managed to send from inside his jail cell Shawkan has maintained his innocence: “I’m a photographer not a criminal.” He also referred to a 45-day detention renewal handed down to him as “a new 45 days of kidnapping”.
Shawkan’s brother, Mohamed Abou Zied told Daily News Egypt that amongst the 12 charges his brother faces include murder, attempted murder, possession of weapons and gunfire, threatening public peace, disrupting the constitution, sabotaging public and private property. Mohamed described the accusations as “weird and stupid”.
His family visits Shawkan once a week in Tora Prison. They are concerned for his emotional state saying it is “very bad” and that he is “emotionally exhausted”.
In one message from his cell Shawkan said: “I hope; here, there is no hope, no colour, no lights. Black hole.” He said he is sharing his cell with 15 others arrested on the same day.
In a separate message he said “I am strong… I am patient, I am still alive”.
Mohamed said that there is not a yet a date for his brother’s trial. Until then Shawkan, like hundred of others, remain incarcerated as he has been for 365 days.
Additional reporting by Jihad Abaza