Al-Jazeera English’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy speaks to Egyptian judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata on May 3, 2014, as part of a trial that included five Al Jazeera journalists, where they were accused of defaming the country and ties to the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
Mass media incarceration
Fakharany’s case is known in the Egyptian media as the “Rabaa operations room” trial. He’s being tried alongside 50 others — a hodgepodge of people with different backgrounds, including at least five other journalists and senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, such as Mohammed Badie, the group’s leader in 2013.
The inclusion of the Brotherhood leaders in the journalists’ case was a clear attempt by the regime to tar the reporters with the anti-Brotherhood frenzy that swept Egypt after the coup. It “really shapes the way the public is going to perceive” the trial, said Yasmin el-Rifae, who until recently was the senior research associate for CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program. “I think they were sort of banking on him getting lost in the shrillness of the crackdown that followed.”
An Egyptian court banned the Muslim Brotherhood in September 2013, and since then the government has indiscriminately charged journalists and political dissidents with belonging to the group, according to CPJ.
Fakharany is charged with belonging to a banned organization, spreading false news, possessing a walkie-talkie, and forming an “operations room” to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to work against the government during the dispersal of the Rabaa protest.
Like other recent political trials in Egypt, it made little difference that the prosecution didn’t present evidence to back up the charges. The only evidence presented against Fakharany was the record of his interrogation by state security officers. The court created a technical committee of experts to evaluate the photos and videos the prosecution claimed were fabricated, and the committee found that none of them were falsified.
The lead judge assigned to the first trial was Nagy Shehata, infamous for issuing the guilty verdicts in the Al Jazeera trial and sentencing multiple groups of dissidents to death in recent years. As lawyers were giving their defense arguments, “he made statements basically saying that he thought these defendants were guilty,” said Rifae. “That gives you an indication of the level of injustice that was being carried out.”
Shehata didn’t even wait for all the accused to finish their defense arguments before issuing the verdict in April 2015, finding all 51 defendants guilty. He sentenced 14 people, including Badie and Soltan’s father, to death for planning attacks against the state. The others, including Fakharany, were sentenced to life in prison, which in Egypt is 25 years.
I wrote to Fakharany on Facebook messenger after the conviction. “At least I still have access to Internet,” he typed back with a smile emoticon. “I will never give up fighting.… In the end for sure I get my freedom. Year, 2 or 3 years but I will get it ..Cuz I had a fake trial .. without any evidence without anything so for sure the appeal will cancel the verdict.”
He was partially right. In December 2015, a Cairo appeals court annulled the verdicts due to insufficient evidence and ordered a retrial. In the new trial, which began in February 2016, prosecutors have not presented any evidence against Fakharany save the record of his interrogation, said his lawyer, Ahmed Helmy.
A journalist carries a placard which reads 'The journalist is staying and the tyrants are on the demise' in front of the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo on Nov. 19, 2016, to protest a court verdict sentencing the head of the union and two members to two years in prison. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
The best years of your life
Fakharany’s parents live in the fifth-floor apartment of a building on a desert plateau outside Cairo. When I visited them in February 2016, his mother was getting ready to visit him the next day. The kitchen was cluttered after a day of cooking in preparation for the prison visit — inmates often depend on the meals delivered by family, and Fakharany’s parents usually bring 20 pounds of beef or a dozen roasted chickens to feed their son and his cellmates. Large chunks of meat were sizzling in a pot on the stove; dishes filled the sink.
Fakharany’s father, Ahmed, wore a faux fur hat and rubbed his hands together against the chill. They had brought warm clothes for their son and his cellmates on a recent visit. “The guards said, ‘Oh, these are very, very nice,’ while holding up the clothes,” he said, indicating they would take some for themselves.
In January 2016, Fakharany’s situation had gone from bad to worse. He was transferred from Tora prison to Wadi Natrun prison, separating him from friends and harshly downgrading his standard of living. Guards arbitrarily refuse to allow Fakharany’s parents to bring food and clothes or sometimes even to visit. He no longer has access to a mobile phone. When there are hearings in his trial, he’s moved temporarily to Egypt’s notorious Scorpion prison, a maximum-security facility with miserable conditions.
His emotional well-being has sharply deteriorated. “The last two times we saw him — he’s not OK,” said his father. “He’s crying too much. He said, ‘I don’t like for you to come and see me without a good face, without a good smile.’”
Soltan, who was released in 2015 after coming close to death on a hunger strike and relinquishing his Egyptian citizenship, calls prison “a living man’s graveyard.” Access to a phone, he said, “makes you feel like you’ve got a lifeline.” Without it, Fakharany communicates via smuggled letters.
The hardest part of prison, said Soltan, is “seeing the best years of your life just go by — they’re being robbed from you, they’re being wasted, when you could be progressing in your career, when you could be building relationships, getting married, having kids. And I think it’s the thing that eats away at Abdullah. No one expected it to be this long. Everyone thought it was going to be a small crackdown and that’s it.”
Egypt’s prisons are bursting at the seams, full of tens of thousands of political prisoners arrested since the 2013 coup. A September 2016 report by the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information estimates that there are currently 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. The government’s bloody crackdown fed an already simmering jihadi insurgency, and some are worried that the mass incarceration of disillusioned dissidents alongside Islamic extremists could make the prisons a breeding ground for a new wave of jihadis.
The selfie Fakharany sent me on his smuggled phone from his cell in Tora Prison in April 2015, after a court sentenced him to life in prison.
That isn’t the case for Fakharany. In a two-page handwritten letter to me penned in October, Fakharany said the full scope of the changes he’d undergone in prison wouldn’t be apparent until he was released. But he had experienced some “paradigm shifts,” he wrote. While the “fight for freedom” had previously been an event to cover, “my days in prison taught me that freedom is a life that deserves a fight for.”
“Imagine living in a … sociological experiment for three years in a small room with 30 human beings representing the whole spectrum of the social prism,” he wrote. “Surprisingly prison has taught me to deal with a human being not the social hierarchy.”
In September 2016, Fakharany began a hunger strike, ingesting only sugar water, to protest his lack of medical treatment. He has an unexplained painful swelling in his leg, which has made movement difficult. In a late September message smuggled from prison, he wrote that prison officials have refused his request to be transferred to a hospital to diagnose the ailment. After he began refusing food, his weight dropped from about 175 pounds when he entered prison to about 110 pounds.
In a letter to his fiancée written at the beginning of November, he told her that he had partially broken the hunger strike in order to be able to take pain medication. He ended the hunger strike around the beginning of December, because of his deteriorating health.
The imprisonment has affected Fakharany more than any other event in his life.
“Three years ago when you asked me, it wasn’t my main priority to be released. But my main priority was to retrieve the atmosphere of freedom, freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of speech,” he wrote in the letter to me in October. “But after three years of false imprisonment … my biggest hope is now to be released, released from the oppression and the oppressor. Despite the fact that I know my release from prison will not return me to be free as before.”
But the struggle has not extinguished his idealistic fervor. “Unexpectedly and against all odds the Egyptian revolution is still prevailing in the spirit of the Egyptian youth,” he wrote. “The regime is still feeling the threat of the resurrection of the Egyptian youth uprising.”
The day when Egypt’s regime falls may yet be a long way off, but for Fakharany, the future still contains the hope of personal and political triumph. “My pen isn’t able to describe my feelings in this moment,” he wrote in tidy Arabic script over the summer to congratulate Soltan on his engagement. “My feelings are happiness mixed with joy, happiness that you are free to get married and I am still imprisoned, and joy for you that God blessed you.”
He asked God to “give us all freedom soon, and allow me also to marry the one I love.” He ended with a smiley face.
Fakharany, left, and Abdallah Noor Eldin attend a candlelight vigil in Cairo in March 2013 to commemorate the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising. Credit: Abdallah Noor Eldin.