Egyptian court refers 75 for death over 2013 sit-in, spares American and photojournalist

Photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid is seen behind bars during a court hearing July 28, 2018. He is one of the more than 700 defendants in a political mass trial in Cairo for whom the "maximum penalty" of death by hanging was requested by the prosecution.
(Jonathan Rashad / For The Times)

There was a rare piece of good news Saturday for an Egyptian photojournalist who learned he will be spared a death sentence, nearly five years to the day he was arrested while covering a political protest in Cairo that turned violent.

Photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, 31, was not listed among 75 defendants a Cairo court on Saturday said it would refer to Egypt’s top Islamic law official, grand mufti Shawki Allam, over whether they should be hanged to death. Under Egyptian law, the mufti must be consulted before executions are carried out. He must sign off on death sentences, but it’s ultimately up to a judge whether to apply capital punishment.

Those being referred for death include top figures from the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Moustafa Kassem, a 53-year-old American auto-parts dealer from New York, was also spared a death sentence, although he still faces a verdict on Sept. 8 for his alleged role in the protest. He denies any involvement.


With Saturday’s trial and the possibility of a death sentence behind them, Kassem and Abou Zeid must await a verdict. The worst outcome the pair now face is a life sentence.

Abou Zeid’s brother, Mohamed, heard the news as he waited outside the court with members of the press trying to get through security.

“Thanks be to God,” he said after calling his parents to let them know the news. “It’s a good sign.”

Abou Zeid and Kassem were in court expecting to hear a final verdict in a mass trial of 739 defendants, largely suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They all faced the same generic charges — including membership in the outlawed Brotherhood, illegal assembly, possession of a weapon and murder — in connection with a political protest that turned violent in 2013.


Instead, they learned that the verdict was to be postponed a second time, to Sept. 8.

“I hope they release him,” said Abou Zeid’s brother Mohamed.

The lawyer for Abou Zeid, Karim Abdelrady, expressed his surprise at the “very, very big number” of people referred to the grand mufti for execution, but was less surprised that his client was spared.

Award-winning photojournalist Abou Zeid — popularly known as Shawkan — has long maintained his innocence. His plight has gained international attention and he has become a global symbol of the Egyptian state’s repression of the press. The country is ranked the third-worst jailer of journalists in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists.


Both Abou Zeid and Kassem were arrested Aug. 14, 2013, during the violent dispersal by Egyptian security forces of a sit-in in Rabaa al Adawiya square in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City.

The demonstration was held in support of former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood after he was ousted by the military. Human rights groups estimate that at least 900 people were killed during the dispersal by security forces.

Abou Zeid, an Egyptian freelance photographer, was on assignment covering the clashes for the now-defunct British photo agency Demotix when he was arrested along with two foreign journalists. The two foreign journalists were quickly released that day. One of them, American Mike Giglio, has said being a Westerner helped secure his release.

For Kassem, however, American citizenship didn’t help. He was on holiday in Egypt visiting family, and maintains he was arrested after he went to exchange money in Nasr City, about two miles from the clashes. When he tried to return to his car less than two hours later, the chaos had spread and army officers and tanks were on the street where it was parked, preventing him from getting to it.


According to his brother-in-law Mustafa Ahmed who was present at the time, army officers beat and arrested him after he he pulled out his U.S. passport.

His family expressed frustration that Kassem didn’t get a verdict Saturday, even if the death penalty has been dropped for him.

“I feel terrible since he has to wait 1½ months more in jail,” said his sister Eman Kassem via WhatsApp from New York.

The decision not to apply capital punishment comes just days after the U.S. government released $195 million in military aid to Egypt. The aid had been suspended last year citing Egypt’s human rights record. Observers say Egypt’s violation of human rights has actually worsened.


Kassem’s American lawyer, Praveen Madhiraju, initially feared the U.S. government was ceding leverage, especially after both Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had raised his case with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi.

Still, he’s disappointed Kassem’s prison ordeal is not over.

“We had hoped they would try and get the case done before the five-year mark,” he said. “Probably wishful thinking.”

For many rights groups and observers, the trial reflects the state of the country’s justice system, with at least 60,000 political prisoners, many awaiting trial.


“This is just another example of frankly a system that is broken,” said Timothy Kaldas, nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington-based think tank. “The fact that Shawkan and some of the others can spend years in prison without a conviction reflects a total disregard for due process.”

Islam is a special correspondent.