Even release from detention doesn't always mean freedom, especially for those who were imprisoned in cases related to freedom of expression. This year, both the award-winning photographer Shawkan and the renowned activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah have been released after five years behind bars, but they are required to spend every night at a police station for the next five.

Treatment like this caused Amnesty International to label Egypt an "open-air prison for critics", due to the crackdown on even seemingly benign dissent, like Amal's video. "Over the course of 2018, Egyptian authorities have arrested at least 113 individuals for absurd reasons, including satire, tweeting, supporting football clubs, denouncing sexual harassment, editing movies, giving or conducting interviews. In some cases, those arrested had done nothing at all. The authorities have accused them of 'membership of terrorist groups' and 'disseminating false news'," the human rights group said.

Egyptian journalist Shawkan in court in Cairo in 2015 (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Freedom within limits after five years in prison: even though he has been released, photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) has to report to the police station every night for another five years. He was arrested in August 2013 when he reported on the bloody suppression of a demonstration in Cairo. Hundreds of people were killed in the clashes between security forces and supporters of the overthrown Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Shawkan was tried for murder and membership of a terrorist group. He had been facing the death penalty

Living in permanent insecurity

Life outside the walls of Qanater prison is its own form of punishment for the family. The terms of Amal's probation initially required her to remain under house arrest and check in at a police station near the family's former home every Saturday evening. The Giza police directorate then removed the demand that Amal remain under house arrest and changed her probation demand to two four-hour visits to the police station each week. "But the police directorate never sent a fax to update our police station with the new decision," Lotfy explained, highlighting the Kafka-esque scenario that ensnares prisoners and former prisoners alike in a web of bureaucracy.

"She's completely in limbo," said Lotfy. "She has a sentence that isn't being implemented but could be at any time. She also has a probation sentence that is not being implemented and another probation cancelled, but only partly." The lack of clarity about Amal's sentence creates anxieties for the family and at first caused Amal to have regular panic attacks.

"It affects us a lot. We're not free to go out when we wish, as she fears she might be stopped at a checkpoint and re-arrested. I call her all the time, fearful that the police may come and check to see if she's remained under house arrest or not. When she goes to the police station, we are worried she will be taken into custody again to serve her sentence," said Lotfy. He and Amal's lawyers have filed an appeal against the first charge, including the request for a presidential pardon. But even if the appeal is accepted, Amal will likely have to face a re-trial, risking more jail time.

"She can't plan her life," said Lotfy. "She's still accused, meaning she could be re-arrested at any time and sent to trial." The threat of his wife's repeated detention also impacts on Lotfy's own ability to focus on his own human rights work, which involves tracking enforced disappearances and other infractions committed by the Egyptian state.

"I'd been working in the field of human rights for 15 years before she was arrested," he said. "I was constantly hearing difficult stories and writing reports, documenting torture. I never truly understood the pain of the family members; I thought more about the pain of the victim. Only when I lived it did I realise how devastating it is."

Ruth Michaelson

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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