Young Egyptian filmmaker who mocked Sissi dies in jail

Shady Habash, 24, was arrested in 2018 for ‘spreading fake news’ after directing a music video critical of the Egyptian leader

Illustrative: Egyptian soldiers peer out of a police vehicle to watch released detainees outside Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt, Nov.18, 2016. (AP/Amr Nabiln)
Illustrative: Egyptian soldiers peer out of a police vehicle to watch released detainees outside Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt, Nov.18, 2016. (AP/Amr Nabiln)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A young Egyptian filmmaker imprisoned for directing a music video critical of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has died in a Cairo jail, his lawyer said Saturday.

Shady Habash, 24, died in Tora prison, said lawyer Ahmed al-Khawaga, who was unable to give a cause of death.

“His health had been deteriorating for several days…. He was hospitalized, then returned to the prison yesterday evening where he died in the night,” he told AFP, without giving further details.

Habash was detained in March 2018, accused of “spreading fake news” and “belonging to an illegal organization,” according to the prosecution.

He was arrested after having directed the music video for the song “Balaha” by rock singer Ramy Essam.

The song’s lyrics lambast “Balaha” — a name given to Sissi by his detractors in reference to a character in an Egyptian film known for being a notorious liar.

Essam gained popularity during the popular revolt against then-president Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. He has since gone into exile in Sweden.

The video has had more than five million views on YouTube.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said in a Twitter post that Habash died as a result of “negligence and lack of justice.”

Human rights groups have regularly highlighted poor prison conditions in Egypt.

In a Thursday statement, PEN America described Habash’s death in custody as “a devastating blow to artistic freedom”.

“With Habash’s death, (Sisi) has sent a disturbing signal to the rest of the world: share views that I disagree with and you might face a de facto death sentence,” said Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk program.

Since early March, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, authorities have suspended visits and the work of the courts, further isolating detainees.

“Due to the measures taken against the coronavirus, no-one has been able to see (Habash)” recently, said Khawaga.

Habash himself warned of his predicament back in October, in a letter posted Saturday on Facebook by activist Ahdaf Soueif.

“It’s not prison that kills, it’s loneliness that kills… I’m dying slowly each day,” he wrote.

Fearing the spread of the virus in overcrowded prisons, human rights defenders have called for the release of political prisoners and detainees awaiting trial.

According to several NGOs, an estimated 60,000 detainees in Egypt are political prisoners, including secular activists, journalists, lawyers, academics and Islamists arrested in an ongoing crackdown against dissent since the military’s 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

On Sunday, Amnesty International released a report accusing Egyptian authorities of turning journalism into a crime.

Amnesty documented 37 cases of journalists detained in the government’s escalating crackdown on press freedoms, many charged with “spreading false news” or “misusing social media” under a broad 2015 counterterrorism law that has expanded the definition of terror to include all kinds of dissent.

Marking World Press Freedom Day, the group urged Egyptian authorities to halt their censorship, harassment and intimidation of journalists — and to release those detained “solely for carrying out their work.”

AP contributed to this report.

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