“The Egyptian artist, Shady Habash, has died in prison after two years of unlawful detention, because of a song,” tweeted Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer and former Amnesty International researcher. “Calling on the authorities to release all detainees now does not concern only the opposition or activists. Anyone can be the next victim.”
Habash’s death comes amid growing concerns of the novel coronavirus spreading inside Egypt’s prisons and detention facilities. The U.N. human rights office estimates Egypt holds more than 114,000 inmates in a system that it says is overcrowded, unsanitary and suffering from a lack of resources where “detainees are routinely denied access to adequate medical care and treatment.”
Habash and a co-worker, Mustafa Gamal, were arrested in March 2018 after directing a music video for the song “Balaha” that mocked President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. The title refers to a character in a popular Egyptian movie who is considered a repetitive liar — and the implication is that Sissi is like that character. Sung by Ramy Essam, who is in exile in Sweden, the tune denounces Sissi’s rule.
After their arrest, Essam publicly said the two men had nothing to do with the song’s content or message. But they were charged with spreading false news and being members of a terrorist network.
Under Sissi, considered the most authoritarian ruler in Egypt’s modern history, dozens of artists, novelists, poets and activists have been jailed for trying to undermine Sissi or harm the country’s image.
“[Habash] was one of the kindest and most chivalrous,” Essam wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday. “He never hurt anyone.”
While other authoritarian governments in the region, including Iran and Turkey, have released tens of thousands of prisoners in efforts to contain the virus, Egypt has freed far fewer, despite calls from the United Nations and human rights activists.
Egypt released roughly 4,000 inmates on April 25 to commemorate Sinai Liberation Day, which celebrates the 1982 Israeli military withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. But none of those released were political prisoners.
Instead, Sissi’s government has imposed stricter coronavirus restrictions, preventing family visits and leaving prisoners feeling even more isolated. Several are on hunger strikes to protest conditions.
They include Mohamed Amashah, a 24-year-old Egyptian American from Jersey City who was arrested in April 2019 for holding up a sign in downtown Cairo that read “Freedom for all prisoners,” and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a well-known activist who has been jailed since September after small anti-government protests.
Mohamed Morsi, who was elected head of state in 2012 and ousted a year later in a military coup, died in 2019 after being held for six years in prison, where, activists and his relatives say, he was denied medical treatment for his diabetes and other illness. The government denied the allegations.
In January, Egyptian American Mustafa Kassem, a 54-year-old auto parts dealer from New York, died of apparent heart failure after more than six years in jail with negligent medical care, according to activists and relatives. His death touched off a rare period of tension between Sissi and the Trump administration, which has mostly kept silent publicly about the Sissi regime’s human rights abuses.
In October, it was clear that prison was taking an emotional toll on Habash.
In a letter, he wrote that “prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does.” Resisting in prison, he wrote, means “preventing yourself from losing your mind, or slowly dying, because of having been thrown in a room two years ago, being forgotten, without knowing when or how you will get out.”
“I need your support so that I don’t die,” Habash wrote.
His funeral took place Saturday, his lawyer said. Gamal remains behind bars.
Heba Farouk Mahfouz contributed to this report.