The first trial session of the “Rabaa Sit-in Dispersal” case was delayed on Saturday after it was discovered that all the 700-plus defendants could not fit inside the courtroom’s cages.
Among those due to be tried in the case is the photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, who has spent 850 days in pre-trial detention, more than the two-year limit on pre-trial detention.
The trial was postponed to 6 February, when it is hoped the courtroom cages inside the exceptional court located at Tora Prison will have been expanded to the appropriate size.
“Defendants were not able to attend in the first place; so it was considered an administrative cancelation since the session did not convene,” said Lawyer Mokhtar Moneer from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
Judge Hassan Farid, presiding over the case, decided to postpone the trial for two months based on the required duration set by the Arab Contractors Company to conduct the expansion of the cages. The General Prosecution is entrusted with supervising the expansion.
Farid also ordered the arrest of the remaining defendants, which means the number of detainees in the case is expected to increase. According to Mokhtar, there are more than 800 defendants in the case, although only around 300 are currently in detention.
“At a time when the state is calling for rapid adjudication in urgent cases, it is also intentionally obstructing the progress of cases currently being adjudicated in front of the courts,” said Mokhtar.
The state, embodied in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior, should have taken precautionary measures to ensure the court cages were expanded and well-equipped before the date of the session, which was known to the authorities beforehand, according to Mokhtar.
Shawkan’s defence team will convene to discuss the measures to be taken following Saturday’s postponement.
Police arrested Shawkan in August 2013 while he was covering the security forces’ violent dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in.
During the first two years in detention, Shawkan was not made aware of the charges against him, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He has since been charged with murder, attempted murder, protesting and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.
Amnesty International addressed an open letter to the General Prosecutor, calling for Shawkan’s immediate and unconditional release and for all charges against him to be dropped, ahead of Saturday’s mass trial.
Amnesty identified Shawkan as the only Egyptian journalist to have been held beyond the two-year cap on pre-trial detention.
The CPJ also called on the General Prosecutor in a letter to support requests to free Shawkan, stating that the photojournalist was at Rabaa Al-Adawiya in August 2013 “not as a protester or a criminal, but as a journalist.”
Last week, the Free Shawkan Foundation, based in the US, was launched by the detained photojournalist with the aim of defending journalists’ rights, freedom of expression and prisoners of conscience worldwide.
Khaled El-Balshy, head of the Freedoms Committee at the syndicate, said at least 32 journalists were detained during the dispersal. Of these, 18 were detained in cases directly related to their jobs, while some were arrested and then framed with fabricated charges. Among the charges were membership of a “banned organisation” – without any evidence to support the charges, he said.
The detention of Shawkan and other journalists has raised concerns about the freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Egypt. Several solidarity campaigns were launched by the Press Syndicate as well as international and local human rights organizations calling for their release.