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Egyptian photojournalist Shawkan free after nearly six years in jail

Award-winning photographer imprisoned over his work documenting the Rabaa massacre in 2013
Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, carries his camera at his home in the capital Cairo on 4 March 2019 (AFP)

Award-winning Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, better known as Shawkan, was released from detention on Monday morning after nearly six years in jail, according to local media and activists.

“It’s a feeling I cannot explain, I am free,” he told Reuters news agency.

Shawkan was transferred from prison to pre-release detention on 16 February after serving five years and six months in jail.

Another 214 people who were jailed at the same time and served the same sentence as Shawkan were also released on Monday, according to the AFP news agency.

Shawkan’s release is conditional as he will be subject to five years of “police observation” whereby he must appear at a local police station every day at sunset, in addition to restrictions on his management of financial assets.

shawkan with family
Shawkan has finally been reunited with his family (AFP)

The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed Shawkan’s release but called on Egyptian authorities to remove further conditions on his release.

"We are relieved to hear that Shawkan is finally free after spending over five years in jail and call on authorities to end their shameful treatment of this photojournalist by removing any conditions to his release," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator, Sherif Mansour.

"The Egyptian government should take steps immediately to improve its image, which has been badly tarnished by this unjust imprisonment - and it can start by releasing all journalists jailed in relation to their work."

Last year, Shawkan received the 2018 Press Freedom Prize awarded by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, which called his detention a human rights abuse.

Egypt's government, in turn, criticised UNESCO for its decision to honour someone accused of "terrorist and criminal acts".

International rights groups have repeatedly denounced Shawkan's arrest and called for his release, including Amnesty International, which said he was imprisoned merely for doing his job as a photojournalist at a public demonstration.

Shawkan, 31, was arrested on 14 August 2013 while taking pictures of the Egyptian military's violent dispersal of a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square, where supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi were protesting the coup against him that year.

More than 800 protesters were killed by the joint police and military operation, according to Human Rights Watch.

In August 2015, he was referred to trial alongside more than 700 other defendants on charges including participating in unauthorised protests, murder and membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. 

Last September, the criminal court sentenced Shawkan to five years in prison, a sentence he had already served retroactively. But he was sentenced to an additional six additional months in detention as prosecutors claimed he failed to pay “compensation” for the damages alleged in the charges against him.

Seventy-five people in the same case have been sentenced to death and are currently in the process of appealing their verdict, according to local lawyers.

According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 32 Egyptian journalists are currently detained in Egypt, ranked 161st in the RSF 2018 press freedom index.