Exclusive: Freed After Hunger Strike, Egyptian Journalist in U.S. to Campaign for Jailed Colleagues

September 25, 2014


Abdullah Elshamy

Al Jazeera journalist who was released from prison in Egypt in June after being held for 10 months without charges. During his imprisonment, Elshamy went on a hunger strike for nearly five months and reportedly lost over a third of his body weight.

In a global television and radio exclusive, we are joined by Abdullah Elshamy, the Al Jazeera journalist who was released from an Egyptian prison after he sustained a five-month hunger strike. Elshamy was freed from prison in June after being held for 10 months without charges. During his imprisonment, he lost over a third of his body weight. He is in New York City to lobby for the release of his fellow Al Jazeera reporters still imprisoned in Egypt. As he walked across the street on Wednesday to the United Nations where Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi delivered a speech, Sisi supporters threw hot coffee on him. Sisi is set to meet with President Obama and reportedly request more U.S. assistance — including military hardware. Human Rights Watch is calling on Obama to use the meeting to publicly criticize Egypt’s continued crackdown on human rights, including the widespread jailing of political opponents and journalists, mass death sentences, and lack of accountability for the killing of more than 1,000 protesters by security forces in July and August 2013.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Wednesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi delivered his inaugural speech to the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. He applauded his nation for, quote, "revolting against corruption and despotism," and he vowed that Egypt, under his rule, will respect freedom of opinion and religion.

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: [translated] From this podium, I first support the great people of Egypt that made history twice over the past few years: first, when they revolted against corruption and despotism and claimed their right to freedom, dignity and social justice; then, when they held onto their identity and, enthused by patriotism, they rose up against exclusion, refusing to succumb to tyranny of a faction who, in the name of religion, put there interests before the interests of the people. ... Our aim is to build a new Egypt, a state that represents its rights and freedoms, honors its duties, and ensures co-existence of its citizens without exclusion or discrimination, a state that represents and enforces the rule of law, guarantees freedom of opinion for all, and ensures freedom of belief and worship to its people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is set to meet with President Obama and reportedly request more U.S. assistance, including military hardware. Human Rights Watch is calling on Obama to use the meeting to publicly criticize Egypt’s continued crackdown on human rights, including the widespread jailing of political opponents, mass death sentences, and lack of accountability for the killing of more than 1,000 protesters by security forces in July and August of 2013.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, dozens of Egyptians have begun a hunger strike to demand the release of imprisoned activists they say are being unjustly detained. The Egyptian Press Syndicate recently held a sit-in hunger strike in its offices in Cairo to demand the release of political prisoners.

Well, in a Democracy Now! global TV/radio/web exclusive, we’re joined now by one of Egypt’s formerly imprisoned hunger strikers, Abdullah Elshamy, Al Jazeera journalist who was recently released from prison in Egypt after being held for 10 months without charge. During his imprisonment, Abdullah Elshamy went on a hunger strike for nearly five months, reportedly lost over a third of his body weight. He’s in New York to lobby for his fellow Al Jazeera reporters still in prison. On Wednesday, as Abdullah walked across the street to the United Nations, where the Egyptian president spoke, Sisi supporters threw hot coffee on him. Abdullah Elshamy is with us now in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now! What happened? Tell us what happened just yesterday.

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Well, I was actually trying to get to the United Nations building, because, you know, I was accredited to go inside to kind of attend the sessions. And I had two of my colleagues from Al Jazeera along with me, so we were just walking down the street. That was probably 47th Street. And there were protests there—you know, Chinese people, Iranians and other people. And then, suddenly, one of the Sisi supporters—it was a lady, I remember—she kind of identified me and said—you know, started shouting to the others, "Guys, this is the traitor! This is the guy from Al Jazeera!" And they started shouting against me. And then, just for me, kind of, you know, ease things down, because they looked so aggressive, I kind of walked back to where I was coming from. And then, suddenly, I didn’t actually see the person, but I felt something was thrown on my legs and my back. And then, when I saw it, it was boiling coffee. And, well, what’s actually disappointing is that when we reported this to the police, they said, "We can’t do anything, because we were not there." So, this is what actually happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when we were showing that clip of President Sisi, you mentioned that a lot of the same people around him at the U.N. were there during the Mubarak era. Could you talk about that?

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Well, I mean, they say this is a new country, this is the new Egypt, yet it’s the very same faces, yeah, the very same guys who during Mubarak time were supporting all his tyranny and dictatorship. And you can’t change to a new system without changing the people responsible for that system. He claims there’s, you know, freedom and press has a right to do whatever they want—they can even criticize him, he said that on CBS with Charlie Rose. But yet, my colleagues, Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, are still in prison, in prison now for over eight months, and other many dozens of journalists are still in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: You were arrested before they were. You were held for 10 months. You worked for Al Jazeera Arabic, though you’re moving over to English. They work for Al Jazeera English. What happened to you? When were you taken?

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Actually, on the 14th of August, when the security forces started cracking down on the protest at Rabaa Square and other places.


ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Yes, last year. I was just covering, you know, what’s happening there, just like any other day, because I had been stationed to cover that place since the 5th of July. I actually work in West Africa. That’s where my—you know, where I’m based, in Nigeria. But I was asked to move to Egypt to kind of cover there. So, on that day—

AMY GOODMAN: And you are Egyptian.

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: I am Egyptian, yes. And on that day, the security forces kind of, you know, made it hard for anyone to leave. I mean, I remember—they claim that there was some kind of warning for people to get out before they started clearing the place, which is not true, because at 7:00 in the morning I was in the makeshift hospital, and I’ve seen dozens of bodies inside there. So, at the end of that day, when the whole place was raided, and there was actually not any kind of resistance from the protesters, I had to leave. And I was at that time in the Rabaa hospital. It’s different from the makeshift hospital. It’s like a six-story building there. So, they stormed the building with guns and weapons and different—you know, there were mostly special forces, and they asked everyone to leave and to kind of surrender by putting their hands behind their heads. So I kind of left.

The only exit was through Rabaa mosque towards the seventh district of Nasr City, where the protest was taking place. And then I had to cross to a police checkpoint. There were two checkpoints: one, a police checkpoint, and then the one later was an army checkpoint. At the police checkpoint, nothing happened. But when I got close to the army checkpoint, I was asked to show my ID to one of the army officers. And that’s actually when my detention journey started, because I remember them saying that, oh—he was telling his colleague that "I think we’ve just got a spy," because when they saw my passport, and it had—because of my work as a journalist, it had many visas, and, you know, it was mostly filled up, so they thought, "Well, we’ve got somebody here." And that’s when my detention started.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And did they ever formally file charges against you during that period of time—

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Well, actually—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that you were being held?

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Yeah. Well, actually, we were about a thousand people who were detained that day, and everyone was charged with the same things, you know, things like inciting murder, possessing weapons illegally, assaulting police officers, causing public disorder—mostly these kind of crimes. It’s actually 15 charges. But actually, this was never brought up to a court, because there’s not any kind of evidence. And it was just, you know, plain charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the hunger strike that you went on, that you launched in prison.

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Well, after five months of my detention, you know, I felt that this was going nowhere, because trying to go through the justice system was kind of hopeless. There was just the usual detention renewal every 45 days. They take us as a group of people, almost 300 in one time, to see a judge, who doesn’t really listen to us or even to our lawyers. And even sometimes when the judge listens, he kind of makes the same decision every time. So I kind of lost hope in the whole judicial system. And I believe it’s a total farce, because it doesn’t really—it lacks any basics of justice.

So I decided I was going to embark on this hunger strike to kind of tell the world that I’m a journalist, I’ve been in prison for over five months now, and nothing is—you know, why am I in jail? This is what I just wanted to say. I said, "If I’ve actually done anything, then, well, take it against me and put me in jail. But there’s nothing." So, I decided I was starting this on the 21st of January. And I knew it was going to be a long wait 'til I get my freedom back, because I was trying, you know, to kind of use former experiences of hunger strikers around the world in the last century to kind of give me support. So, that's why I started the hunger strike.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And meanwhile, you were being shuttled back and forth from one prison to another, held in solitary confinement for a while. Talk about those experiences.

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Yeah, actually, I was held in four jails. The longest was Liman Abu Zaabal. It’s a prison kind of northeast of Cairo. It’s in the Nile Delta. And I stayed there from the 20th of August 2013 ’til the 16th of December that same year. And there was another prison, Istiqbal Tora, which I stayed there from the 16th of December ’til the 12th of May. And the last was the maximum-security prison, usually known as the Scorpion, al-Aqrab, for 37 days. The last one was actually the most kind of—the most painful for me, because I was in solitary confinement all the time, and I was not allowed to get in contact with anybody and was cut out from the outside world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to what you said outside the prison when you were released. This is just after you were freed. This is Abdullah Elshamy.

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: I have won, and everybody who is a freedom fighter, either a journalist or anyone doing his work credibly and with honesty, has won, because this isn’t—I mean, this experience has changed my life. I am not the person who I had been anymore. I am now more determined than before to carry on with this struggle, not just because of me, because for everyone to be able to do their job freely. A hundred and forty-nine days of hunger strike is an experience, of course, I will never forget in my life. Everyone who has been into this battle, the battle of hunger strike, has always won; there have never been any losers.

AMY GOODMAN: That was on the 17th of June, when Abdullah Elshamy, the Al Jazeera journalist, was released after 10 months in prison. So today you’re here in New York, and so is the Egyptian president, under whose regime you were held, under Sisi’s government, and before, you were held. He has met with former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, and then he met with former President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, who was—who may well be running for president. Your thoughts about this and what you’re calling on President Sisi to do and why you’re here in the United States?

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Well, 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, I believe, 270 days. And this is actually the thing that every official in the United States, starting from President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry or any other official, who kind of believe that Sisi is really going to keep up his promises, you know, through spreading democracy and preserving freedom of press, should kind of put more pressure on him, because I believe this 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 el-Fattah and other prisoners who were able to get back their freedom. They should actually do more, because I remember Secretary of State John Kerry, one day before the sentence, saying that he was given a firm promise from Sisi to keep a good record of human rights, and the next day you see seven and 10 days—sorry, seven and 10 years for my colleagues. So, I think if really the United States wanted to do more, they can do to put more pressure on him. And at the same time, I think all what he says or what he says is not really true, because he claimed with Charlie Rose on CBS that the freedom of press was preserved and everybody had the right to say anything, yet you see Peter and Baher and Mohamed imprisoned for over eight months now. You see other journalists also in prison. And I think also—I think if really that pressure is taken to an utmost level, then that will definitely work, because that’s the only way the new government in Egypt—I mean, that’s the only language they start understanding.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And clearly, it’s not just the journalists, it’s thousands of others who are also in jail in Egypt, right?

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Definitely, definitely. And one of them, which is Mohamed Soltan, the American citizen who’s been in prison for over one year now without any kind of charge, and he’s been on hunger strike for eight months now. And I kind of think that there should be more done for him. Last session, which was just two days ago, he was not even able to go to court. And the American ambassador was not allowed in. So 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.

AMY GOODMAN: He is reportedly—Mohamed Soltan, the 26-year-old American citizen—


AMY GOODMAN: —is reportedly near death.

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Yes, that’s true, because, actually, he is suffering from some medical conditions. He was suffering from that even before his imprisonment. And he doesn’t get any kind of medical care. And the last court session, the judge said that he should not be taken to hospital without his own permission, which is kind of, you know, making it harder for him.

AMY GOODMAN: You were held before Sisi was elected and then a little bit afterwards, after he was elected, is that right?


AMY GOODMAN: Yes. When do you head back? But you won’t be going to Egypt, I assume.


AMY GOODMAN: You will not be returning to Egypt?

ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: Not anytime soon, I think, because the atmosphere in the country now is not welcoming for journalism, especially the kind of journalism that’s really after telling the truth and, you know, doesn’t really take any kind of political stance, because I can’t go back to Egypt and my colleagues are still there, I mean, at least, you know, when there are not any kind of signs that their release is imminent or their conditions are improving. But yet, I’m hoping that the appeal, which was filed for them a month ago, would work, and hopefully we’ll see them and see other prisoners in Egypt walk free back to their families.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Abdullah Elshamy, for joining us, Al Jazeera journalist who was recently released from prison in Egypt after being held for more than 10 months without charge. During his imprisonment, he went on a hunger strike for nearly five months, losing a third of his body weight. Again, his colleagues, Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, remain in jail, in an Egyptian jail, after eight months.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s the climate week, with the largest climate march in history, U.N. climate summit on Tuesday. We’ll talk to Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International. Stay with us.

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