(New York, NY) – PEN America mourns the death of Egyptian filmmaker and photographer Shady Habash, who died Friday in Tora Prison, a maximum-security facility in Cairo, after almost 800 days in pre-trial detention. The cause of his death is not yet known. Jailed for directing a music video critical of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he had been in prison since March 2018. PEN America said his death was a devastating blow to artistic freedom, called for answers into the circumstances of his passing, and condemned the Egyptian government’s ongoing criminalization of artists and writers who express dissenting views. 

“We are heartbroken by news of the death of Shady Habash,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America. “Artists take risks, but they should not have to pay with their lives. Habash passed away after spending over the last two years of his life in jail without a sentence, merely for directing a music video that expressed views critical of the president. Again and again, through wide ranging efforts to muzzle those who criticize his regime, President el-Sisi has shown a sheer disregard for freedom of expression. With Habash’s death, he has sent a disturbing signal to the rest of the world: Share views that I disagree with, and you might face a de facto death sentence. PEN America emphatically calls for an explanation as to the circumstances of Habash’s death, and for the release of all writers, artists, and political prisoners detained for merely expressing themselves.”

Shady Habash, 24, was detained after he directed a music video for “Balaha,” a song by the exiled Egyptian musician and activist Ramy Essam. Released February 26, 2018, the song criticized the state of the Egyptian economy and government corruption, while also referring to el-Sisi as a “date.” Habash was arrested days later, on March 1–although his work on the video had nothing to do with the content of the song–but never underwent trial. The maximum limit for pre-trial detention in Egypt is two years, but as of his death, he had been imprisoned well in excess of this limit while awaiting wide ranging “potential charges” that included being a member of a terrorist group, spreading false news, abuse of social-media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion, and insulting the military.

Habash’s arrest is not an isolated case. When the video for “Balaha” when viral on social media, Habash’s colleagues Galal El-Behairy, who wrote the lyrics to the song, and Mustafa Gamal, who set up Mr. Essam’s Facebook page, were also arrested and put in detention. El-Behairy was later sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for insulting the military and spreading false news. Both he and Gamal remain in detention. Their arrest is part of an increasingly drastic pattern of attacks on freedom of expression in Egypt. Numerous artists and writers remain behind bars, even as Egyptian officials face mounting pressure from around the world to release prisoners from overcrowded jails to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.