When he went to jail he was 25. Today, he walks free almost having turned 27. Photojournalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada, the victim of a crackdown on journalists in Egypt, was arrested on 28 December 2013. He went to Al-Azhar University to cover clashes there, but while photographing two students merely passing by the events getting arrested, he was taken into custody himself. Since then, it has been a long journey in Abu Za’abal prison.
He did not escape physical assault, insults, restrictions, punishment and threats – claims that were later confirmed by a delegation of the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) which visited the prison upon his allegations.
496 days were spent behind bars under “temporary detention”. According to him, the period could have stretched for even longer. Ziada was finally acquitted from all charges related to violence on 29 April. Nonetheless, it took police authorities more than 72 hours to eventually let him go free.
As painful as it was, the patient photojournalist survived by constantly writing. He had been reporting on the situation of detainees in jail. “Authorities literally told me that if I stopped, they would make it easier on me,” he said in an interview with Daily News Egypt.
Not scared, despite explicit threats, Ziada was determined to proceed, not only through pictures but also through words, a skill that he developed in the past years. He wrote about the abuses against prisoners by security forces before NCHR’s visit. He also said that many young detainees were arrested randomly in different cases, and that they have never even heard of the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s former leader Mohamed Badie.
In the Al-Azhar University case, several lawyers from the students’ defence team provided an alibi to the court that their defendants were taking exams at the time of the incidents, and were arrested afterwards.
What happened after your arrest?
I was taken to the police station.
I spent the worst night there. I was in disbelief. I am a journalist, with a photography permit, working for a legitimate [media] network. They kept accusing me of working for Al-Jazeera or RASSD. I denied, but they wouldn’t listen.
I asked if I could make a phone call, but they didn’t let me. The more I asked, the more they hit me. The evidence the police claimed they found in my possession were a bottle of soda, a scarf and a tear gas canister. All of them were not mine, but the police officer told me to put them in my bag.
Then I was transferred to the [illegal] detention camp of Al-Salam, where I was interrogated. I stayed there for four days. We were more than 50 people in a cell of 16 sqm. After that, I was taken to Abou Za’abal, where I was beaten and got my head shaved.
Were you threatened in prison?
They had a problem with me writing about them. But it’s my job. I used to face obstacles because of that. For instance, they were very restrictive with my mother, father and brother when they visited me. They would forbid them from the silliest things, such as not letting in vegetables or fruits. Just any type of oppression they could find.
I could not stop writing. It was the only thing that kept me alive in jail.
National Security paid me a visit once. They tried to make me an offer that I be on their side in exchange for a good job. I refused.
Are you still facing threats?
They did not let me go easily, despite court acquitting me. In fact, they tried to implicate me in another case by manipulating a man with a name similar to mine who was involved in several cases. It took me and the lawyer a while to finally be able to prove that wrong in court. It was after that they released me.
What was “disciplinary detention” like?
It’s a cell, three spans in width, five spans in length. It has no electricity or water or a bathroom or anything whatsoever. Only the ceiling is high. I was provided with half blankets. They actually cut blankets in two. I had to choose the best way to make use of it: sleep on it or under it, during winter. We were not allowed to take any belongings inside. It felt like a cemetery.
I was fed once a day, with a small piece of bread and cheese. I had a bottle of extremely dirty water. I don’t mind discipline, but they can make more humane cells. Using a plastic box instead of a bathroom is inhumane. Naturally, prison authorities did not allow NCHR to see those cells during their inspection.
Once, I was sent there as a punishment because I objected because a conscript insulted me. I swear, we were five in one cell, sitting next to each other. The maximum period I spent inside was seven days in a row. I complained about it to the judge during my trial. After the session was over and I was back to jail, I was sent back to the disciplinary cage.
Another time, I was able to take a lighter form a colleague. I had a serious issue with that plastic box, it really troubled me. I set it on fire. When the plastic burned I could not breathe. They brought me a doctor who gave me medicine and did not advise against my stay in the cell. The doctor is an officer and he must obey prison orders regarding my location.
I think this was torture, more than the beating I got. I was sent there three times. They considered me a troublemaker because of the writing.
Were those who ‘did not make trouble’ in a better situation?
Unfortunately, even those who didn’t cause them problems were not spared violations. So I preferred to at least have a voice, mark my presence. And I wasn’t afraid, because I did not do anything wrong. I am a photojournalist; I have a message to deliver. Instead of being angry at me for filming their violations against students, they should take responsibility for their actions.
Who is Ali Kaoud and what happened to him?
He is an Al-Azhar University student [detained in the same case]. One time there was a security inspection of our prison cell. A police officer insulted a prisoner. He objected and so did we. They got angry and a group of masked men stormed the room.
They beat us with sticks. [Shows fading marks on his arm] They blindfolded Kaoud and ordered him to give himself female names. He refused to do so, and it got worse. They took him in a courtyard in the middle, on which most cells overlook. That day, they even attacked detained activists on another floor that had nothing to do with our situation.
Before NCHR visited us, Kaoud was taken to an unknown place, after being locked in a disciplinary cell. I believe his marks were the heaviest. In fact, when they came, they asked to see him. Prison forces said they “could not locate him due to a computer system failure!”
How was the NCHR delegation’s visit?
First of all, security forces were acting unusually with us. They brought us quality food and drinks; they ‘prepared us’ for the delegation’s meeting, attended by senior ranks of the Ministry of Interior. However, on our way, a police officer tried to talk me out of it. He had threatened me earlier that if I spoke to the NCHR he would fabricate a drugs case against me.
Before I spoke to them, I told them I was threatened. I asked them if they were serious about this mission and they said they were. The Deputy Minister of Interior told me that nobody could threaten me. But I interrupted to confirm it happened.
The man wanted to portray a dreamy picture of disciplinary cells. I proposed they take a look at them. Then I started telling them everything and nobody in the room could prove me wrong. They were able to deny it in the media, which I had no access to.
I took off my clothes in front of Dr. Salah Sallam, a respectful medical expert. A police doctor was with us. Before the visit, I abstained from showing him the marks on my body, because I was afraid they would try to keep me from meeting the delegation. And I faced him with that later.
I also had a problem when the Interior Ministry official spoke to them about prisoners’ leisure hours. The truth is, we were allowed out of our cells for one hour every day to stand in a tight crowded corridor.
With all of this happening to you, was there somebody to complain to?
Well, I wanted to take my rights by law. I once filed a complaint to the Prosecutor General after we were five people locked in a disciplinary cell. The police officers tormented me about it when they found out. My family paid the price in every visit.
You went on a hunger strike?
Twice. My first one nearly lasted 100 days. I got sick. But mostly my mother also got tired. They tried to pressure me and threatened me to end my strike or put me in solitary confinement. However, the prison doctor’s check-up consists of pressure and sugar tests only. Aida Seif El-Dawla [head of El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence] sent me a letter in jail, convincing me to break my hunger strike. She told me “we don’t want our youth to die”. I ended it. I went on another one in the disciplinary cell.
What about the torture allegations we hear of?
They strip you off your clothes and beat you. One detainee had a shoe put in his mouth. Beating with sticks is torture. There is no reason for it. That should be in case you resist forces only, but I had just arrived to jail. This is known as the “reception”.
Then, there is prison inspection time. Masked men raid our prison cells. They call it the “stripping mission”. They take our belongings that we bought and burn them. I was beaten down for my hunger strike. And they are masked so I would never recognise them.
Tell us about your trial. There were several changes of judges?
Yes; at first we were at a misdemeanour court. In the last session before we were referred to criminal court, Judge Nagy Shehata left us in prison for seven months. Then, the first judge of the criminal court withdrew from the case, on the grounds that his deputy had a family tie with the prosecutor. They could have just replaced him, not postponed the whole thing.
How can a photojournalist do his job? What are the risks he faces?
The photojournalist wants to record different moment of the events. For the protesters’ side and the security camp, the camera is a problem because it reports the truth. The Ministry of Interior, the institution that commits the most violations, is afraid of the camera; they want to arrest or shoot me. Protesters, who are not always peaceful, are afraid as well, they want to break my camera.
What are your future plans?
I will go on. Now I will not only photograph, but I will also write. I appreciate all the solidarity I received from colleague photojournalists and journalists, as well as the Press Syndicate. Its new head Yehia Qalash seems to have a new promising strategy and stood by me.
How do you see the situation for media freedom today and in the near future?
For the media to be able to perform, first of all the state security threat must decrease. Censorship and arrests should stop. A journalist is entitled to write whatever he wants regardless of who likes it or not. We can’t jail anybody who expresses himself. The other problem is the legal status of journalists. Those who are not registered at the Press Syndicate are still journalists, especially as most electronic journalists are not syndicate members. Digital journalism is as important as print media.
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