CAIRO: Formerly imprisoned Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy is reported to be campaigning in New York City for the release of three of his colleagues still imprisoned in Egypt over charges they colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Elshamy’s visit to New York coincides with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s attendance of the U.N. General Assembly. In a Thursday Interview with Democracy Now!, he said he will not be returning to Egypt “anytime soon.”
“The atmosphere in the country now is not welcoming for journalism, especially the kind of journalism that’s really after telling the truth,” he added.
“I’m here to lobby for my colleagues, my three colleagues from Al Jazeera English, who have been in prison now for over 10 months,” Elshamy told Democracy Now! Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were convicted in June 2014 for their activities following the events of June 30. They were charged with helping the Muslim Brotherhood and false reporting and sentenced between 7-10 years in prison. An appeal has been filed in their widely criticized sentences.
Elshamy is accredited to attend the United Nations General Assembly sessions, which started Sept.16. During his visit and while trying to reach the U.N. building, he said that a Sisi supporter in New York threw hot coffee on him and called him “the traitor” from Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera, an international broadcaster based in Qatar, is widely believed in Egypt to be backing the Muslim Brotherhood of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. As a result, a crackdown was launched on its staff and headquarters in Egypt, which is now shut down.
Elshamy said pressuring authorities “is the only way that my colleagues will be out, because pressure has worked in my own case. It has worked in other cases, like Alaa [Abdel] Fattah and other prisoners who were able to get back their freedom.”
After being held for 10 months, five of which he was on hunger strike and reportedly lost over a third of his body weight, Elshamy was set free in June without charges.
He was originally arrested amidst the August 2013 security crackdown covering the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in. Elshamy was held on 15 charges that were later dropped due to lack of evidence. They included inciting violence, possession of weapons, causing public disorder and assaulting officers. These charges are routinely brought against Egypt’s political prisoners.
Following his release, Elshamy tweeted, “Standing for my detained colleagues in Egypt. We will not back down from telling the truth.”
Elshamy: battle of hunger strike always wins
After his health deteriorated, Elshamy was released on medical grounds. “Everyone who has been in this battle, the battle of the hunger strike, has always won; there have never been any losers,” he said upon his release.
Over the last few months, hunger-striking has been widely used by thousands of activists in and out of jail demanding the release of political detainees, many held on charges of violating the 2013 Protest Law.
Campaigns like “Gebna Akherna” (We’ve Had Enough) and the “Empty Stomach Battle” have demanded the annulment of the law and the immediate release of detainees.
Mohamed Sultan, a dual Egyptian-American citizen, was transferred to an intensive care unit in Torah Prison last week after being on hunger strike for eight months protesting his detention.
In New York, Elshamy commented on Sultan’s case by saying, “There should be more done for him… I think this is really shameful and disgraceful that the United States doesn’t do more for the cause of press freedom and freedom generally.”
Change course on human rights violations
It is not just Elshamy calling for Egypt to release detainees while the spotlight is on Sisi in New York.
Human Rights Watch called on U.S. President Barack Obama to address the subject of human rights during his Thursday meeting with Sisi, and has repeatedly called on the U.S.—a top military supplier to Egypt—to excise pressure on the country to change course on human rights violations.