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Jailed by Egypt, Honored for His Photojournalism

Photographs capture mere fractions of seconds, but a series of them taken by an Egyptian journalist has cost him more than three years of his life.

Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, has been in Tora Prison in Cairo for more than 1,100 days. He has been detained without trial since he was arrested while photographing the deadly antigovernment protests that roiled Egypt in the summer of 2013.

“My passion is photography, but I am paying the price for my passion with my life. Without it, a part of me is missing,” Mr. Abou Zeid wrote in a letter published by the Committee to Protect Journalists in March 2015 to mark his 600th day in detention. “Tora prison is like a cemetery. It is a place where dreams come to die.”


Mahmoud Abou Zeid at a recent court appearance in Cairo. Credit Lobna Tarek

On Tuesday, the committee honored Mr. Abou Zeid with an International Press Freedom Award, presented in New York — in absentia. The group started a social-media campaign, asking supporters who attended its annual gala to photograph themselves holding a placard saying #FreeShawkan and post it to Twitter.

Among the journalists who posted selfies at the event was Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post.

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power more than three years ago, he has been criticized for cracking down on the press. The Committee to Protect Journalists recorded the imprisonment of 23 journalists in Egypt in 2015, second only to China.


Muslims and Christians protesting together in Cairo in spring 2011. Credit Mahmoud Abou Zeid

Mr. Abou Zeid’s mother, Reda Aly, who visits him in prison once a week, said of the award: “I am looking forward to talking to him about it, because I know he will be happy and he deserves it.”

Mr. Abou Zeid, 29, was arrested with two other journalists, one from France and one from the United States, on Aug. 14, 2013. He was covering clashes between the military and supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist who had been ousted as Egypt’s president a month before. Hundreds of protesters were also arrested, and more than 1,000 people were killed, including four journalists, according to Human Rights Watch.


A woman passing graffiti in Cairo that condemns police brutality and memorializes 76 people killed at a soccer match in February 2012. Credit Mahmoud Abou Zeid

The foreign reporters were quickly freed, but Mr. Abou Zeid — who was on assignment for Demotix, a British website and photo agency — was charged with weapons possession, illegal assembly, murder and attempted murder. Such charges have since been regularly levied against protesters and political opponents of Mr. Sisi’s government.

Mike Giglio, the American journalist who was detained at the same time as Mr. Abou Zeid and who works for BuzzFeed, has written that he saw the Egyptian carrying only his camera before his arrest.


Members of the riot police in Cairo in 2011. Credit Mahmoud Abou Zeid

A freelancer who made his living on the streets of Cairo studying the subtleties of light, Mr. Abou Zeid has been kept in a small, dark cell with more than a dozen other inmates since his arrest, his family said. He tested positive for hepatitis C before his arrest, and his lawyer says he has been denied treatment.


The national security and secret police headquarters in Cairo, after protesters stormed the building and demanded that the organization be dismantled, in March 2011. Credit Mahmoud Abu Zeid

“He is severely anemic and looks skeletal,” said his father, Abdel Shakoor Abou Zeid.

Mahmoud Abou Zeid is an Egyptian citizen who grew up in Kuwait, where his parents worked as teachers. He moved back to Cairo in 2009 to study and practice journalism. The timing was fortuitous: Within less than two years, he was at the epicenter of months of upheaval that toppled leaders across the region, including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.


Demonstrators in Cairo at a 2013 rally against the government of President Mohamed Morsi. Credit Mahmoud Abou Zeid

“Photography was always his passion and his hobby,” said Ahmed Abu Seif, a childhood friend who now runs a Facebook campaign called Freedom for Shawkan. “Since the Nokia mobile phone with the camera, he was always really into photography, Mr. Abu Seif added.


Crowds emerging from a metro station in Cairo during the 18 days of protest against Mr. Mubarak in 2011. Credit Mahmoud Abu Zeid

“He was not a political or a religious person,” Mr. Abu Seif said. “He was there just to do his job.”


Graffiti depicting Mr. Morsi after his ouster. Underneath his shirt, the former president displays the logo of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group. Credit Mahmoud Abou Zeid

Ms. Aly, his mother, brings him home-cooked food on her weekly visits, and sometimes slips into the package a piece of fresh fruit, like a mango, which she said was not allowed.


The Cairo cityscape in 2011. Credit Mahmoud Abu Zeid

“I only get to see him for one hour once a week, and there are always officers coming and going,” she said. Sometimes, she said, the prison guards allow her to slip her son bits of chocolate: “The boy just loves chocolate.”

Source: NYT > World

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