On 2 May, the 24-year-old filmmaker Shady Habash died in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison after drinking sanitising alcohol. Habash had been held in pretrial detention for 793 days, despite the two-year maximum prescribed by Egyptian law. He was among eight individuals arrested in March 2018 for their alleged involvement in producing the exiled musician Ramy Essam’s song ‘Balaha’. The song’s title comes from a slang term derived from the name of a character in an Egyptian film who is a liar and the word has been used to mock President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Essam released his song and the accompanying video, which Habash had directed, on 26 February 2018. The following month, Habash was arrested on national security charges and detained in a maximum-security prison.
Essam’s song criticises the Egyptian government and its policies. Following its release, various pro-government television hosts launched a smear campaign against Essam and his lyricist, the poet Galal El-Behairy (LR, July 2018). On 3 March, El-Behairy was arrested; he reportedly suffered torture in pretrial detention. In July 2018, he was sentenced to three years in prison by a military court. Unlike El-Behairy’s, Habash’s case never went to trial; nor was he charged with a crime. In a letter published on Facebook last October, he wrote of his despair at having been ‘thrown in a small room for two years’ not knowing ‘when or how you will be released … Prison does not kill. It is only loneliness that does.’ He also claimed that ‘every 45 days they take me to a judge, and again with the exact same scenario, scene and result (another 45 days of renewal) without looking at me, the paperwork or my case’.
Habash’s fellow inmates yelled and attempted to alert the prison guards for hours while the young filmmaker was dying, but to no avail. In a poignant tweet, the lawyer Tarek Hussein observed, ‘Shady Habash went to prison at 22 for a song. He died at age 24.’ He added, ‘It’s a short, sad story about Egypt’s future, which is dying day by day in prison.’
Since Sisi seized power in 2014, he has presided over a widespread crackdown on dissent, in which tens of thousands of people have reportedly been detained, hundreds have been killed and hundreds more have ‘disappeared’. On 22 May, English PEN joined over sixty signatories urging the Egyptian authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into Habash’s death and calling for the release of those who remain in detention:
The public prosecutor issued a statement on May 5 claiming that Habash died from drinking sanitizing alcohol, thinking it was water, and a state autopsy report on May 11 allegedly confirmed the cause of death as alcohol poisoning. Such reports have several apparent inconsistencies, including whether Habash knew he was drinking alcohol and when – or if – doctors decided to transfer him to an external hospital. Even if the reports are taken at face value, Tora Prison officials were apparently medically negligent in their lack of response … Habash’s case has sent a heartbreakingly clear message to artists and writers throughout Egypt: Independent expression may lead to years-long illegal detention, and even death, in custody.
PEN is currently monitoring several cases in Egypt, including that of the web designer Mustafa Gamal, who remains in pretrial detention, and the blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah (LR, Feb 2018), who was rearrested in September 2019 and is also in prison awaiting trial. His mother, Laila Soueif, and aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, were among those arrested in March during a protest calling for the release of detainees in order to curb the spread of coronavirus in Egyptian prisons. Both were later released on bail. Since then, Laila has tried to deliver cleaning and medical supplies to her son in Tora prison. A recent attempt resulted in the arrest of Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, who was interviewing Laila outside the prison. Attalah has since been released on bail.
According to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Habash’s death was the third in ten months in Tora’s cellblock four and is ‘a glaring indictment of Egypt’s justice system, which has, over the past seven years, routinely deployed pretrial detention and medical neglect to retaliate against critics or opponents’. The filmmaker will not be the last fatality, they warn, if the government continues to ignore calls to release prisoners, especially given the dangers they face from coronavirus.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing shock at the death in custody of Shady Habash; calling for a full and impartial investigation into his death; and urging the authorities to release those prisoners of conscience who remain detained, in violation of their right to freedom of expression, pointing out that the coronavirus pandemic poses a particular threat to the wellbeing of detainees.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Nasser Kamel
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street, London W1K 1DW
Fax: +44 20 7491 1542
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,
Office of the President, Al-Ittihadia Palace
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2 391 1441
Email: email@example.com / Moh_moussa@op.gov.eg