Doha – Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy has been detained without charge or trial in Egypt for more than 250 days. He has been on a hunger strike since January to protest the conditions at Tora prison and his health has sharply deteriorated.
Meanwhile, three other Al Jazeera English journalists – correspondent Peter Greste and producers Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – were back in court this week for the resumption of their trial on charges of spreading false news and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt has labelled as a terrorist organisation.
Al Jazeera has rejected the charges against all of its staff and called for their immediate release.
On Tuesday, Elshamy’s mother, Thuraya Elshamy, spoke with Al Jazeera about her son’s condition and how the family is coping with his ongoing detention.
Al Jazeera: Abdullah has been on a hunger strike for three months. What do you know about his health at this point?
Thuraya Elshamy: Abdullah started his hunger strike on the 21st of January. He wanted to start this earlier because it appeared that it was the only way, because any other way was blocked. There were no charges, no court. We supported him on this decision because we thought it’s the only way for him. It had a great effect on his health and we knew it would affect his health negatively. He’s now feeding on only water and he lost very much weight, more than 35kg of his weight, and most of his organs are immensely affected by this. It also affected his bones, because in his last message he said that even the 30-minute break they give to prisoners, he can’t go out any more because his bones are not helping him. Walking and moving became very difficult. When Abdullah was arrested he was fully healthy. I haven’t seen him for more than three months now so I’m sure the effect is very great. Three months on hunger strike, this is not something easy.
AJ: How has the family coped with his detention?
TA: The first time I saw Abdullah, it was after three weeks of his detention. I saw him behind the net of wires [that divides prisoners from visitors]. This is a place that should be hosting criminals. When I saw him wearing the prison’s clothes, it was very difficult to see my son. But since Abdullah chose to work in journalism and especially to work with Al Jazeera, we were expecting that his way was not going to be easy. Before, we urged him many times to act responsibly, because he chose a difficult career. We were expecting him to be facing difficulties and dangers, but not in his own country.
AJ: How do you feel about the work Abdullah was doing as a journalist?
TA: We as a family are highly interested in everything that belongs to humanity and human beings, and we raised our children accordingly. Abdullah’s first coverage [for Al Jazeera] was the Libyan revolution. At the time, naturally I was afraid as a mother because he was in danger, but my biggest fear was if he might not be able to report the full truth and the real truth. I have a strong belief that a person’s life is in God’s hands, but I was afraid that because he was very new in the profession he wouldn’t be able to report the whole truth as it should be reported. But we were very surprised seeing Abdullah’s performance. He was the only journalist who dared to enter Misrata at that time. It was extremely dangerous there.
AJ: What has your son told you about the conditions in prison?
TA: Abdullah is not open in describing everything he’s facing because he doesn’t want his family to face this huge burden. But he told me the cell is 3m by 3.5m, and in the same place, the toilet is there and it’s opened. In this space there were 18 prisoners. They hang their stuff from the ceiling because there’s no place on the ground. It’s not possible that the 18 prisoners can sleep at the same time, so they sleep in shifts… Before the hunger strike, he couldn’t eat the food served there because it’s really disgusting and it’s not edible. There isn’t any medical care. [When visitors come in] there are four police to stand by them, check on them. We’re not allowed to talk privately to Abdullah, so you should be very cautious; if you say anything, it may harm Abdullah. After five to 10 minutes they start yelling at them, calling them to end the visit.
AJ: Abdullah has been held for more than eight months without trial. How frustrating has it been for the family to watch this process unfold?
TA: It’s a family tradition that we give our children a nickname that goes with his personality. Since Abdullah was two years old, we started to call him “Heart” – he’s the heart of the family, very sincere and sensible. You have to imagine, the family is living without its heart. It’s very difficult for us, definitely, but from the very beginning we had a strong belief in Abdullah and his message in life, and the message he’s giving to the world and humanity. And we are pretty sure there is a price that we have to pay with Abdullah so that he can be able to go on his way.
AJ: How optimistic are you that he will ultimately have a fair trial and be freed?
TA: I am very optimistic. I have a strong faith in God, because God is just and will not allow this injustice to be happening. Our son did not commit any crime, did not do any harm, didn’t do anything wrong. We are sure that definitely one day he will be freed. After all that we’ve seen of these wrong procedures and malpractices happening in my son’s case, I don’t trust people any more. I don’t trust procedures any more. I only trust God, and that’s why I’m sure that one day my son will be free.
AJ: If you could deliver a message to the Egyptian authorities, what would it be?
TA: I would tell them that I hold them responsible for any harm and any effects on my son’s health or life. And I’m telling them that all my son’s coverage is available online; they can be sure that he did nothing wrong, because they can see it and hear it themselves online. I also have a message to the journalists. Abdullah Elshamy is one of you, he’s your colleague, and he’s going through his war now and his hunger strike is not only for himself but for the freedom of journalism and every one of you. His hunger strike is his voice from behind bars. It’s a call from him to the world to protect journalists from being killed, from being harassed and from being silenced… Abdullah loves Egypt more than many people who pretend to love Egypt. [He] didn’t do any wrong to Egypt, he didn’t do any harm to Egypt. Everything you’re hearing about Abdullah is just propaganda.
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