On May 1, 2020, Egyptian photographer and filmmaker Shady Habash, died in Egypt’s Tora Prison, at age 24. He had spent more than two years illegally detained for producing Egyptian musician and Havel Prize laureate Ramy Essam’s music video “Balaha.” His case never went to trial or received a verdict.
The death of Shady Habash and the circumstances of his unjust imprisonment are part of a brutal pattern of repression under the el-Sisi regime in Egypt. His death took place within the context of more than 30 years of dictatorship, which has seen massive crackdowns on dissent and suppression of free speech. Those punished have often experienced indefinite stretches of pre-trial detention and horrific prison conditions.
In January 2011, following 18 days of protests during the Egyptian Revolution, the regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled after 30 years. In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first elected president. The following year, mass protests calling for his removal as president began at the end of June, and on July 4, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a military takeover and Morsi was removed from power.
Since 2013, el-Sisi’s authoritarian rule has been characterized by massive repression and a widespread crackdown on dissent. In 2018, el-Sisi won an unfree and unfair presidential election with 97% of the vote, having eliminated his political opponents in the leadup to the election and allowing only one pro-regime candidate to run against him. In April 2019, Egypt held a referendum on constitutional amendments allowing el-Sisi to remain in power until 2030, as well as broadening the power of the military in civilian affairs and undermining judicial independence.
Despite the regime’s draconian measures, anti-regime protests triggered by a decline in the country’s living conditions erupted in September 2019 with demands for el-Sisi’s resignation and an end to government corruption. The regime responded to the protests with violence and mass arrests, security forces were accused of torturing detainees, and the protests were effectively crushed.
Egypt is ruled by a fully authoritarian regime, under which there is no respect for the fundamental rights of citizens. Under the el-Sisi regime, Egypt is experiencing what has been referred to as its “worst human rights crisis” in decades, as the regime utilizes repressive tactics even more reprehensible than those used by previous regimes.
Since April 2017, Egypt has been under a nationwide state of emergency, which is a de facto mechanism for the regime to perpetuate human rights abuses with complete impunity. At the beginning of May 2020, el-Sisi’s regime approved an expansion of emergency law powers in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, with the majority of new amendments having little or nothing to do with public health, but instead further consolidating el-Sisi’s power over every aspect of Egyptian citizens’ lives. Among these new amendments, are provisions that allow el-Sisi to ban public and private gatherings, irrespective of a public health crisis, and control the prices, ownership, transportation, and sale of goods.
There are no meaningful political opposition parties, and religious minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community all face harassment, discrimination, and violence. Civil society organizations and NGOs face steep barriers to operate, in clear violation of freedom of association rights. Freedom of assembly is tightly restricted, with security forces permitted to disrupt gatherings of more than ten people. A sweeping NGO law was passed in 2019, granting the regime the ability to interfere in the internal workings of any NGO, and expressly prohibiting any NGO from engaging in political or religious work — a mechanism that can be used to crack down on human rights work.
Despite the free press being formally protected in Egypt’s constitution, in practice there is no independent media in Egypt under el-Sisi’s regime, and reporters are often targeted by the regime. For example, as recently as May 2020, Lina Attalah, the editor-in-chief of Mada Masr — one of Egypt’s only independent media outlets — was arrested in Cairo. While she was released on bail shortly thereafter, many other journalists are not as fortunate; the Committee to Protect Journalists has designated Egypt as one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. Access to information is also severely restricted, with hundreds of websites blocked.
In Egypt, there is no separation of powers and no guarantee of independence in the administration of justice, resulting in the frequent violation of due process rights. The president maintains a significant role in the appointment of judges, and the courts nearly always rule in the interests of the regime. Following a 2014 decree granting the military jurisdiction over public places, many civilian cases are handled by military courts, while others have also been handled in specially-appointed Emergency State Security Courts, since the 2017 state of emergency declaration. Both military and emergency courts operate with even less transparency than traditional courts, with flagrant disregard for defendants’ rights.
A 2015 counterterrorism law grants law enforcement immunity as well as sweeping surveillance powers, allowing security forces to routinely disappear, torture, and murder detainees, including many political prisoners, without repercussion. Coerced confessions are often used in court, and trials are often politicized. Detainees are held in overcrowded and dirty prisons, where they are subject to appalling abuse and denied basic necessities such as healthcare, access to legal counsel, or even adequate food. Executions are common, and many others die in detention, whether from medical negligence or being torture by prison guards.
In this climate of repression, Shady Habash was arrested for a song. He produced the music video for “Balaha,” performed by Ramy Essam and written by Galal el-Behairy. The word “balaha” means “date” (fruit) in Arabic, and is often used as a mild insult to call someone dumb. The song was released in February 2018, before el-Sisi’s reelection, and criticized the regime.
Those who knew Shady described him as kind and brave. He had a well-established reputation as a photographer and filmmaker, having begun his professional cinematography career before he was even a teenager; he took advantage of the fact that he appeared older than he really was, convincing local artists and musicians to hire him on the basis of the quality of his work rather than his age. He had aspirations to build a global film and design brand, and worked on a variety of projects, including editing and directing music videos.
At the time of Balaha’s release, Shady was 22 years old. He was a friend of Ramy Essam, and had previously worked with him on other music videos. Shady was credited with directing the video and post-production work, but had no input in its message and wasn’t even involved in its filming. For his work on the video, Shady was arrested in March 2018, and charged with “spreading false news” and “membership in a terrorist network.” He spent close to 800 days in a maximum-security facility before his death caused by medical negligence.
While Shady was initially optimistic that he would be released, he became more depressed as that outcome seemed less and less likely, telling one friend how he thought he’d die in Tora Prison, and writing to another that he was “forgetting what the sky looked like” now that he could no longer see it except through prison bars. In his last letter from prison, he wrote: “The meaning of resistance in prison is: you fight and protect yourself and your humanity from the negative impacts of what you see and live every day, the most basic being that you might go crazy or die a slow death from being tossed in a room for two years and forgotten, and you don’t know when or how you’ll get out… I die a little every day just from knowing that I’m up against all this alone.”
Galal el-Behairy, a poet and Balaha’s lyricist, also was arrested after the song’s release in March 2018, on charges including “insulting the military” and “spreading false news” over the song’s lyrics, as well as the content of his third book of poetry that had been set to be published in 2018. The book, The Finest Women on Earth, was written as a tribute to women, and their accomplishments in the face of inequality.
After his arrest, Galal was disappeared, with his whereabouts concealed from his lawyers and family members. When he later appeared in court, he showed signs of having been beaten and tortured. Several UN experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, published a statement calling for his release and for Egypt’s regime to recognize free expression, in both the creative arts and political activism. Galal’s case was tried in a military court, and he was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds. His verdict was delivered after he had already served 150 days in detention. Galal’s book of poetry was never released, and he remains in prison, where he continues to write.
Balaha was written and sung by Ramy Essam, known as the “singer of the Egyptian revolution” for his popular song “Irhal” (“Leave” in Arabic) which he performed in Tahrir Square during the height of the protests against Mubarak. The song also led to his arrest and torture by state security forces. In 2014, Ramy left Egypt when he was offered safe haven in Sweden, where he became the city of Malmö’s first safe haven musician. Since then, he has continued to advocate for democracy and release music in exile.
Ramy’s work earned him the 2019 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, presented by the Human Rights Foundation. In his acceptance speech, Ramy acknowledged Galal and said, “…not everywhere people who support human rights are being awarded, but are being punished instead. I will not be able to mention their names, not to cause harm at the moment. But there is one name that I will mention and it’s my friend — like a brother — the poet Galal al-Behairy that is in jail at the moment serving a three-year sentence because of a song we created together, and also because of his unreleased poetry book. I’m sending all the strength and energy from here to him and sharing the prize with him.”
After Shady’s death, Ramy wrote that Shady “decided to put his name on his artwork because making art should never cause harm.” But in el-Sisi’s Egypt, no dissent is tolerated, and Shady was arrested, tortured, and detained for almost 800 days in the notorious Tora Prison before his death.
Tora Prison is infamous for housing high-profile inmates including many political prisoners, and for its inhumane treatment of detainees. Known prisoners include, many activists and human rights advocates who are deemed enemies of the Egyptian state. The maximum-security prison has earned the nickname of the “Scorpion,” due to the cruelty that prisoners are forced to endure. Allegations of misconduct at Tora Prison include “welcome parades,” during which inmates are forced to walk through a gantlet of prison guards upon arrival and subjected to physical assault; severe beatings; electric shocks; sexual assault; confinement to a “discipline wing” that lacks electricity, running water, or toilet facilities; and psychological humiliation. Prisoners have gone on hunger strikes to protest these conditions.
Basic necessities, like food, clothes, and medicine are often in short supply within the prison, and personal hygiene products such as soap or toothbrushes, and in some cases even mattresses or bedding, are not available. These overcrowded and unhygienic conditions have made prisoners a particularly vulnerable population to the threat of COVID-19, but the regime has taken very few steps to mitigate the threat of infection within its prisons.
Prison visits by family members or legal counsel, which were often arbitrarily banned before and could only be conducted under supervision from a warden, have been entirely suspended in response to the pandemic. However, rather than protecting the health of inmates, this move further isolates prisoners from the outside world and makes it even more challenging to document ongoing abuse within the prison itself. While other countries in the region have released prisoners in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus in their prison systems, Egypt’s regime has not taken such steps. Even advocating for such a policy has led to more arrests.
Medical negligence and denial of healthcare are pervasive problems in the prison. Medicines are confiscated or never delivered, and prisoners rarely have access to a doctor, even those with serious illnesses or pre-existing conditions. When an inmate does see a doctor, prison guards frequently ignore the doctor’s advice or will not permit the inmate to complete the recommended treatment, even when prosecutors and judges agree that an inmate should receive care.
Death as a result of medical negligence in Egypt’s prisons is not uncommon. In Shady’s case, some of his fellow inmates reported that they had to beg the prison guards to take him to see a doctor, even as his health deteriorated; some announced a hunger strike after his death, in protest of the wardens’ negligence.
Several days after Shady’s death, Egyptian authorities released a report stating that he had died from alcohol poisoning, after accidentally ingesting alcohol distributed to inmates for use as sanitizer to curb the spread of COVID-19. Contradictory accounts given by Shady’s fellow inmates have given rise to calls for an independent investigation into his death, as well as a review of the use of pretrial detention laws for political prisoners.
Ramy Essam and human rights lawyer Andra Matei recently submitted Shady’s case to Agnès Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, calling for a proper and transparent investigation into circumstances of his death, and for those responsible to be held accountable.
Even if the account given by Egyptian authorities is accurate, the evidence strongly suggests that Shady died from medical negligence, as his health was deteriorating for days before the prison guards granted him medical care. This amounts to a violation of the right to human dignity as a person deprived of liberty, which includes the right to health and medical attention.
Under Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Egypt is a state party, everyone has the right to the respect and recognition of their honor and dignity. This right recognizes special protection to persons who are deprived of their liberty, who shall be treated with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. This includes the State’s obligation to provide regular medical examinations and care to prisoners, and also adequate treatment when this is required.
Shady’s case also demonstrates the abuse of pretrial detention in Egypt, which is employed frequently by the el-Sisi regime, especially against dissidents, government critics, or journalists. Pretrial detention has become a mechanism of punishment and intimidation in and of itself, condemning detainees to a state of indefinite limbo with no clear status about their legal situation, future, or chance for release.
At the time of his death, Shady had been imprisoned since March 2018, despite that Egyptian law only permits detainees to be held for two years in pre-trial detention. According to international human rights law, Shady’s time in pre-trial detention amounted to a violation of his right to due process of law under the ICCPR.
As Shady wrote in his final letter from prison, “Every 45 days I go before a judge who gives me another 45 days in jail, without even looking at me nor the papers of the case in which everyone else was released 6 months ago.”
In a statement released in April 2018, Ramy Essam explained that the inspiration behind Balaha was an intent for the song to be a tool to push back against the regime’s violence, oppression, and censorship: “With this song we wanted to remind everyone of the freedom we once had, granted by the revolution. We wanted to remind everyone of the right to speak, the right to criticize, and the right to dream of change.”
Unfortunately, those rights are nonexistent under the el-Sisi regime, where sweeping, vaguely-worded counterterrorism laws give security forces broad latitude to arrest and imprison individuals. Balaha went viral, and, in response, the regime targeted its creators.
Eight people were arrested on charges ranging from “becoming a member of a terrorist group,” “spreading false news,” “abuse of social media networks,” “blasphemy,” and “contempt of religion,” to “insulting the military.” Several individuals arrested were only tangentially connected to the song, such as a guitarist who had played with Ramy Essam previously but had cut ties with the artist after 2015; a few individuals who had no input in the song but had merely worked with Ramy on social media; and an Egyptian man who happened to listen to the song in Kuwait and was overheard by another Egyptian who reported him to the Kuwaiti police, who deported him back to Egypt to face charges.While five of the defendants were ultimately released, three remained imprisoned: Mustafa Gamal, who helped Ramy Essam get his Facebook page verified in 2015 and had not been in contact with the artist since then, nor had any input into the song, Galal, and Shady.
Regardless of the circumstances of Shady’s death, the fact remains that he should not have been imprisoned in the first place. His pretrial detention illegal, and the charges against him were fabricated. Even if he was to have had input in Balaha’s message, the music video should undeniably have been protected as a form of free expression. Free expression is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is protected by Article 19 of the ICCPR, which explicitly acknowledges freedom of expression through the form of art.
Shady’s tragic story, along with the wrongful imprisonment of Galal el-Behairy and persecution of Ramy Essam, sheds light on the nature of Egypt’s prison conditions and the state of freedom of expression in the country. Their stories are not unique; tens of thousands of political prisoners are held in detention, enduring the same conditions that ultimately cost Shady his life.
The el-Sisi regime brutally represses any criticism, stifling free speech, satire, and art in equal measure, responding to even the most innocuous of threats with arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death. Shady Habash is just one of many victims of the regime’s oppression.
Shady’s final letter began with the words “prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does.” It was a plea for the support of his friends, asking not to be forgotten. At the same time that Shady was nearing death in Tora prison, Ramy was setting the words of that final letter to music; the song was meant to be part of a campaign for Shady’s release, following social media hashtags trying to raise awareness among the international community about Shady, Galal, and Mustafa’s plight. Instead, it has become a tribute to Shady’s memory.
In honor of Shady, the international community can support the campaign by spreading the word and demanding the immediate release of Galal el-Behairy and Mustafa Gamal. Proceeds from purchases of the song Prison Doesn’t Kill / The Last Letter of Shady Habash will go to filmmakers and photographers at risk of state suppression. As Ramy recently said, “Listen to it as if it is from someone you know, being detained, asking for your help. Take action.”
While Shady’s death shines a spotlight on the abuses perpetrated by the el-Sisi, regime, one of Galal’s poems, A Letter From Tora Prison, speaks to the yearning of pro-democracy activists to see real change enacted:
We saw a country
rise from sleep
to trample a pharaoh
and cleanse the age
of the cane and cudgel.
We saw a country sing:
those were no slave songs,
no harbingers of doom, rather
for a new kind of steel.
We saw it.
We saw a country
where no one is oppressed.
The international community must stand in solidarity with Egypt’s human rights activists who are advocating for freedom. While it is too late to change the outcome of Shady’s story, the fight for other prisoners of conscience continues, as human rights activists around the world push back against authoritarianism. The el-Sisi regime must be held accountable for the abuses that it has committed.