A chilling message sent by award-winning photojournalist Mosa’ab El Shamy via his Twitter account on Monday filled his 41,000 online followers with dread. Alerting them that his brother, reporter Abdullah El Shamy, had been “removed from his prison cell and taken to an unknown location”, Mosa’ab added that he was “still trying to find out more.”
Abdullah, who works as a journalist with the Arabic-language Al Jazeera (AJ) Misr Mubasher Channel, has been detained at Cairo’s Torah prison since August. He was arrested outside the Raba’a El Adaweya Mosque in Cairo’s eastern residential neighbourhood of Nasr City while filming the forced dispersal of a sit-in by supporters of toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. At least 600 protesters were killed and thousands more were injured in a single day of violence when security forces stormed the pro-Morsi encampment on August 14 .
Mosa’ab’s Twitter post provoked an angry outcry from hundreds of internet activists who demanded that the Egyptian authorities “immediately disclose the whereabouts of the 26 year-old AJ detainee.” The fact that Abdullah has been on hunger strike since January 27–and had reportedly lost a third of his body weight–further fueled concerns over his disappearance and ailing health.
“If they can let a prisoner on hunger strike like Abdullah El Shamy just vanish in Egypt, what does Foreign Minister Fahmy’s talk of ‘due process’ really mean?” asked Jonathan Moremi, a journalist with the independent Egyptian paper Daily News Egypt.
On a recent visit to the United States, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told US Secretary of State John Kerry that the country’s courts were “independent of the government.” He insisted that a “due process” was allowed in all court cases, leading to “fair decisions” by the judges. His statements came in response to criticism from US officials and international rights groups of an April court decision sentencing 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for their role in protests last year against the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. Kerry called the mass death sentences a “dangerous development.” Amnesty International, meanwhile, said “the Egyptian judiciary risked becoming a part of the authorities’ repressive machinery.”
In a blog titled “Where is Abdullah El Shamy?” posted on her website Wednesday, prominent Egyptian blogger Zeinobia said that blood samples taken by Abdullah’s family had shown he was “on the verge of kidney failure.” She also reminded readers that “journalism is not a crime.”
Abdullah is one of 17 journalists currently imprisoned in Egypt and one of four detainees working for the Al Jazeera news network , according to a recent report released by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists , CPJ. Sixty five journalists have been detained since the military takeover of the country in July 2013, the CPJ report adds. Analysts say Abdullah’s situation appears to be “more serious” than that of the other three AJ journalists who have been charged with “fabricating news that harms national security” and “aiding a terror group.” Abdullah has languished in prison for nine months (four months longer than his detained colleagues) and unlike them, he has not been charged thus far. Furthermore, he works for the Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, a network that has been accused by the Egyptian government of being “a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood”, designated by Egypt as a terrorist organization last December. The three other AJ detainees work for Mubasher Misr’s sister channel, Al Jazeera English, generally perceived by Egyptians as being “more balanced” and “fair”.
In a letter smuggled out of his prison cell at the end of January, Abdullah described the dire conditions inside Torah prison, saying he was sharing a tiny cell with 16 inmates. Announcing his decision to go on hunger strike “to send a message to intimidated journalists practicing self-censorship” and “exhort them to overcome their fear,” Abdullah expressed a defiant spirit, telling the military junta that nothing would break his will or his dignity. In a video smuggled out of prison , he held the Egyptian authorities responsible should harm befall him. ” I have repeatedly asked for medical attention but to no avail,” he says in the video.
It took a nerve-wracking two days for Mosa’ab to find his “missing” brother. In a second message posted on Twitter on Wednesday, he informed his online friends and fans that Abdullah had been moved to solitary confinement in Tora’s high security “Scorpion Prison”. Abdullah was being punished “for refusing to end his hunger strike and for attracting international attention to his plight,” Mosa’ab said.
Heba Saleh, the Financial Times’ Cairo Correspondent, who visited the three AJE detainees on Wednesday, offered another explanation for Abdullah’s disappearance. She quoted prison authorities as saying that Abdullah was being punished “for a smuggled cell phone found in his possession.”
Meanwhile, the trial of the three Al Jazeera English journalists –Australian journalist Peter Greste, Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed–took a turn for the worse on Thursday when Lawyer Farag Fathy– the Defence Attorney representing Greste–quit the case, accusing the international news network of jeopardizing his client’s case.
In a surprise move on Thursday, Fathy announced he was withdrawing from the case, adding that Al Jazeera was using the trial for “promotional purposes.” Fathy’s decision to step down came after the Qatari-hosted news network served a Notice of Dispute against Egypt for breaching a 1999 investment treaty with Qatar, Hayden Cooper , ABC’s Middle East Correspondent reported on Thursday. In an article published online by Australia’s ABC news network, Cooper said Al Jazeera was seeking US Dollars 150 million in compensation from Egypt for losses the media outlet had incurred as a result of the closure of its offices in Cairo, the jamming of its satellites broadcasting in Egypt and the mistreatment of its journalists.
Thursday’s court session made little headway as defence lawyers complained to the judge that the prosecution had asked them to pay an exaggerated fee of 1.2 million Egyptian Pounds to review “the evidence.” Adjourning the trial until May 22, the judge urged the prosecutors to allow the lawyers access to the video footage they claim contains “evidence” against the defendants. He also asked them to state in writing their “desired price” for making the footage accessible to the lawyers.
The new developments threaten to further prolong the case that has dragged on for four and a half months. Defence lawyers and analysts fear the recent turn of events may also threaten the final outcome of the case, resulting in an unfair verdict. The four detained AJ journalists, including Abdullah El Shamy, are caught up in the middle of the Egypt-Qatar political dispute, they say, adding that the case is clearly “political” and hence there is little hope that justice will prevail. Abdullah, who has completed 100 days on hunger strike, may not live long enough to hear the verdict.