An Egyptian filmmaker detained without trial for over two years for making a music video that mocked President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi died on Saturday at a maximum-security prison complex, two rights lawyers said.
Attorney Ahmed el-Khwaga said his 22-year-old client Shady Habash died in Cairo’s Tora Prison complex. He said the cause of death was not immediately clear.
There was no immediate comment from the Interior Ministry, which oversees Egypt’s prison system.
Police forces arrested the young filmmaker in March 2018 after he directed a music video by Ramy Essam, an Egyptian musician exiled in Sweden. The video featured a song that mocked the general-turned president, comparing him to a fruit date and condemning alleged government corruption.
Khaled Ali, a rights lawyer, said Habash should have been released two months ago after serving the maximum jail time during pending investigations.
Galal el-Behairy, who wrote the song performed in the video, was also arrested in 2018 after the video provoked the ire of the government when it went viral on social media with millions of views on YouTube.
El-Behairy was sentenced by an Egyptian military court to three years in prison after his conviction on charges of “insulting security forces” and “disseminating false news.”
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Following his death, Habash’s friends published a letter he wrote from prison in October in which he spoke of his despair. “Prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does,” he wrote, describing what he called his struggle to “stop yourself from going mad or dying slowly because you’ve been thrown in a room two years ago and forgotten.”
“His psychological state was very bad,” el-Khwaga said of Habash when he saw for the last time two months ago.
Habash’s death again trained a spotlight on the dangers of Egyptian prisons as al-Sissi escalates a crackdown on dissent. Many inmates are serving time for crimes they insist they did not commit, or have not been charged at all. According to rights groups, thousands are held in Egypt’s jails awaiting trial.
The death also comes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Overcrowded prison cells could be breeding grounds for the spread of the virus, which causes the illness COVID-19. Egypt has around 6,200 confirmed cases and over 400 deaths.
Earlier this year, a U.S. citizen who had gone on a hunger strike as part of a six-year battle against what he insisted was wrongful imprisonment, died in prison of heart failure.
Egyptian authorities said at the time they would investigate the death of Mustafa Kassem, 54, an Egyptian-born auto parts dealer from Long Island, New York.
Kassem was in Cairo to visit family in August 2013 when his lawyers say he was mistakenly swept up in a dragnet during the violent dispersal of an Islamist sit-in that killed hundreds of people. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a 2018 mass trial of over 700 defendants widely condemned by human rights groups.