Photojournalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada attended his second trial session Wednesday held at the Tora Police Institute. Ziada, along with 76 Al-Azhar University students, is facing charges for clashes that date back to 28 December 2013.
The Cairo Criminal Court’s terrorism branch listened to the testimonies from police and National Security officers. One of three confirmed the detainees were protesting and engaging in violent acts. The prosecution officer also testified that the detainees were among the protesters.
“By all means, the case is complicated,” said Mokhtar Mounir, a human rights lawyer defending Ziada and 15 other students.
Besides breaking the Protest Law, accusations mainly focus on setting fire to the university’s Faculty of Commerce, obstructing roads, participating in a public assembly threatning public safety, violence, thuggery, and resisting security officers.
Prior to Wednesday’s session, Mounir told Daily News Egypt the defendants are facing trial before a court in charge of looking into terrorist affairs.
He said: “Moreover, we have a problem that the prosecution authorities and judges do not differentiate Ziada from the other defendants, despite that he is the only one who is not a student.”
Ziada was arrested while covering university clashes. Yaqeen independent network, for which he was working, issued a written confirmation of Ziada’s job assignment.
“So, they arrested him, he showed his press card and the official assignment form, but they still took him, and in the case he belongs to the group of ‘protesting’ students,” Mounir said.
The defence lawyer claimed that despite all documents given to authorities about the true nature of Ziada’s identity, he was not among a group of nearly 30 students released pending trial in the case. This was a surprising decision by the judges who consider the case of utmost security importance, according to Mounir.
The court postponed the trial to 15 March to hear the defence. The judge also rejected the defence’s request to include a detailed map of the university campus, saying “there is no need for it”.
The request was submitted to prove conflicting statements about the place of incidents and the location of the buildings inside the university, on claims that students were arrested from several areas that are sometimes distant from each other.
For example, a photojournalist who was covering the court session said he witnessed the Al-Azhar protests. He told Daily News Egypt that he was standing on the top of one building where he could see Ziada’s arrest. “Ziada was standing among a group of security officers clashing with female students,” he said.
“There is an unbreakable fence between the faculty for girls, and the Faculty of Commerce for Boys, which was set on fire,” he added.
Ziada was in the possession of his camera, and an empty tear gas canister. “Everybody knows why a journalist could possibly grab that, probably to make a story out of it, it obviously does not belong to him,” Mounir commented.
He added that a reporter is legally entitled to cover any events any time anywhere, and the photojournalist has the right to choose the location he will be covering from. In this case, Ziada was inside the university.
It has been over 400 days since Ziada’s imprisonment on temporary detention. His brother Mohamed told Daily News Egypt that the conditions of detention, which include daily insults to Ziada, have put him in a bad psychological state, in addition to “not knowing what he is accused of”.
“In prison, they don’t like Ahmed because they know he writes articles denouncing them,” Mohamed said.
“As a result they get back at him,” he added, referring to prison authorities and police officers. “They do not necessarily give him all the things we bring during the visit, which is once a week,” he added.
“My brother is detained with nearly 20 people; his cellmates include alleged members of the Islamic State group. They have very basic stuff,” Mohamed claimed.
Ziada had previously entered a hunger strike, which lasted for 98 days. He ended it because of stomach problems, and “because his mother was also in pain from his suffering,” Mohamed said. He told the story of how masked officers visited Ziada and the other detainees in their prison cell, when he had just started his strike. “They had a list of names they started calling for, my brother’s name included,” Mohamed said.
The officer, believed to be from National Security, asked him in a challenging tone if he was really on a hunger strike. Ziada was severely assaulted, his winter clothes were taken away and burnt. This is when he told us for the first time that “he felt broken”, Mohamed said.
“We filed a report to the Prosecutor General, but nothing happened, and it was not the first assault, as he receives punishment on a regular basis,” Mohamed added. The defence lawyer explained that when complaints against authorities’ practices on detainees – which include the police and the prosecution – are filed to the Prosecutor General, he sends them back to the prosecution authorities for their decision, despite an obvious conflict of interests in such a procedure.
“Prosecution authorities then ask some National Security officers to visit suspects in prison, question them, and supposedly determine if they are real criminals or not,” Mounir said, confirming Mohamed’s narrative.
Mohamed said the Press Syndicate could not do much, especially as Ziada is not a member, but was grateful for the stance of the committee to defend journalists, which includes members of the syndicate. “In general, journalists helped a lot by organising more than a rally and releasing statements,” he said.
Four months ago, the criminal court referred the case to terrorism affairs. Mounir explained that most protests’ cases are referred to criminal court then terrorism divisions, because related charges include road obstruction and non-peaceful assembly. Some other protest cases can be misdemeanour cases, such as the trial of 68 defendants facing protest charges on the fourth anniversary of the revolution.
“The fact that Ziada has been taken in as a protesting student proves that police randomly and arbitrary arrested students,” Mounir stated. He revealed that many of the arrested students were actually inside classrooms taking their exams, with university documents proving so.
Therefore, Mounir believes that the legal and judiciary process in Egypt nowadays is not about catching real criminals, but about making a good case with proper documents.
Ziada’s career had just kicked off two years ago in Yaqeen network. The 26-year-old press photographer graduated from Azhar University where he studied History. He worked in the fashion business with a “decent” salary, according to his brother. “But he gave it all up to pursue his dream career as a journalist and photographer,” Mohamed added.
In several letters by Ziada that he was able to send to the outside world, he wrote about the horrific prison conditions. “Laughing is the best resistance to prison,” Ziada wrote last October, describing how it felt to spend special occasions behind bars, such as the holy month of Ramadan, Easter times, and even New Year’s Eve, wondering how his mother must have felt during those times.
Last July, Ziada had provided an account that contained painful details about his detention and the assault of police officers. “The cemetery of the alive,” he wrote about the cell prisoners are sent in for punishment. Ziada said he had to bend, knees sticking to arms, because the cell was “that tiny”.
“Despite that journalism put him in jail for a year and three months until now, Ziada is passionate about his job and determined to pursue once he walks free,” Mohamed concluded.