CAIRO (AFP) — An Egyptian court handed a five-year jail sentence to award-winning photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid on Saturday and confirmed death sentences against 75 people in one of the largest mass trials since the 2011 uprising.
Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, who earlier this year received UNESCO’s World Freedom Prize, is however expected to walk free soon, his lawyer said.
Shawkan was arrested in August 2013 as he covered deadly clashes in Cairo between security forces and supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
He was accused of “murder and membership of a terrorist organisation” — charges that can carry the death penalty — but has already spent five years in jail.
Shawkan should therefore be able to leave prison “within a few days,” his lawyer Karim Abdelrady said as he welcomed the verdict.
Smiling in the dock, the photojournalist made a “V” for victory sign to journalists.
But Abdelrady added that the sentence was still “unfair because he [Shawkan] was only doing his job,” covering the events unfolding in the Egyptian capital five years ago.
The lawyer said he would launch a new legal bid to recognise the innocence of his client.
Shawkan was one of 739 defendants on trial in the same case, most of them facing charges of killing police and vandalising property during the clashes.
His detention sparked outrage among human rights groups and NGOs who lobbied continuously for his release.
On Thursday, Amnesty International and press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) held a joint rally outside the Egyptian embassy in Paris to demand that he be set free.
At the time, Amnesty put out a statement warning Egyptian judicial authorities: “The world is watching you.”
A photo of Shawkan — behind bars with his hands in front of his face mimicking holding a camera — have long circulated widely on social media.
RSF ranks Egypt 161st out of 180 countries on its press freedom index and says that at least 31 journalists are currently detained in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The same court that handed Shawkan a five-year term on Saturday also confirmed death sentences initially issued in July against 75 defendants, including leaders of Morsi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
They include senior Brotherhood members Mohamed el-Baltagui, Issam al-Aryan, and Safwat Hijazi.
Of the 75 defendants facing the death penalty, 44 were in the dock while the rest were tried in absentia.
Forty-seven were handed life sentences, while 347 were given 15 years in prison, and 22 minors received 10-year terms.
Five-year terms were handed to 215 people.
The court also sentenced Morsi’s son, Ossama, to 10 years in jail.
On August 14, 2013, one of the bloodiest days in Egypt’s modern history, a month after the army ousted Morsi, police moved to disperse a sprawling Islamist protest camp at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo.
About 700 people were killed within hours at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda Square where another sit-in was being held.
Hundreds more were killed in street clashes with police over the months that followed and mass arrests were made.
In a statement, Amnesty condemned Saturday’s death sentences and “heavy” prison terms, resulting from what it called a “disgraceful mass trial.”
The rights watchdog called for a retrial in front of an “impartial court.”
It said the verdicts were “a mockery of justice,” since “not a single police officer has been brought to account.”
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say at least 40,000 people were arrested in the first year after Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013.
Egypt’s courts have sentenced hundreds of them to death or lengthy jail terms after other speedy mass trials, including Morsi and several leaders of his Brotherhood movement.
Former armed forces chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi won the presidency in 2014 after leading the ouster of Morsi following mass protests against the Islamist’s rule.
Sissi won reelection with 97 percent at a vote in March against a single opponent widely seen as a token challenger, with critics saying the president had carried out a widespread crackdown on dissent.