Egyptian filmmaker who mocked president dies in Cairo jail

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Shady Habash, 24, had been imprisoned without trial for more than two years

A young filmmaker who worked on a music video that mocked Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has died in an Egyptian prison, after he was imprisoned without trial for more than two years.

Shady Habash, 24, died inside Cairo’s infamous Tora prison complex, from “health issues not yet specified,” according to announcements from family and friends.

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World news | The Guardian

A young filmmaker who worked on a music video that mocked Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has died in an Egyptian prison, after he was imprisoned without trial for more than two years.

Shady Habash, 24, died inside Cairo’s infamous Tora prison complex, from “health issues not yet specified,” according to announcements from family and friends.

Habash’s detention and death represent a stark reminder of the growing number of young people at risk inside Egypt’s sprawling prison system, including many detained for their work as artists, making dissenting statements against Sisi’s rule or for no charge at all.

There is also growing concern over unsanitary and unsafe mass detentions inside Egyptian prisons, reflecting fears about the spread of Covid-19 in places of detention around the world. Prominent activist Alaa Abdel al-Fattah, re-imprisoned last September, recently began a hunger strike in protest at prison conditions. The Egyptian authorities, who suspended prison visits in March due to the coronavirus outbreak, have been criticised for widespread and deadly medical neglect of prisoners, including former president Mohamed Morsi, who collapsed and died in court in June 2019.

Mai al-Sedany, an expert on the Egyptian legal system with the Washington thinktank the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said that Habash’s death highlights rising concern around a lack of due process in Egypt. This includes “a rise in prosecution around freedom of expression, continued and near automatic pretrial detention extensions in violation of even Egyptian law, and poor prison conditions that severely harm the well-being of those incarcerated,” she said.

The young artist was detained in March 2018, after directing a music video for the exiled Egyptian rock musician Ramy Essam. The video sees Essam, who now lives in Sweden, dancing as he criticises the rule of Egyptian president Sisi, comparing him to a date or “balaha”, the name of a character in a popular comedy film used against Sisi by his critics. “You live in gardens and we live in jails,” he sings, “may the Lord take you we all pray, with all your gang boys in that darkest jail, I hope you rot in such a place.”

The video’s release prompted the arrest of eight people, most with little connection to Essam. These included Habash, the poet and lyricist Galal al-Beheiry and Mohamed Abdel-Basset, who was arrested after playing the song on his car stereo in Kuwait and deported back to Egypt. All were accused of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news. Beheiry was sentenced to three years in prison in July 2018 for publishing false news and insulting the military in a separate military trial.

Following the release of five involved in the case, Habash and Mustafa Gamal, who helped Essam verify his Facebook page, remained in prison on pre-trial detention. “He should have been released after two years,” said a representative from the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, who asked not to be named for their own safety. “Instead he was forced to remain in custody with no legal grounds. He died in jail, where he shouldn’t have been in the first place. No artist should be in jail for his work.”

Essam wrote on his website that “Shady didn’t have anything to do with the content of the song.” He also published Habash’s last letter from prison, entitled “prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does. I need your support not to die.”


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