(New York, NY)— In an open letter sent this week to the Egyptian Ministry of Justice, PEN America, Amani: Africa Creative Defence Network, and more than 60 partner organizations called on authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the death in custody of 24 year-old filmmaker Shady Habash, and to release all artists, writers, and journalists currently held in pre-trial detention.

Habash died in an Egyptian prison earlier this month after spending some 800 days in detention, a flagrant violation of Egyptian law, which prohibits holding someone without charges for more than two years. He was detained for his role in connection with exiled musician Ramy Essam’s song, “Balaha,” which criticized the Egyptian government and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

“Habash’s case has sent a heartbreakingly clear message to artists and writers throughout Egypt: Independent expression may lead to years-long illegal detention, and even death, in custody,” the letter reads. “We strongly urge you to release all artists and writers currently held in pre-trial detention for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression, especially in light of COVID-19, which now ravages prisons around the world. Likewise, we demand a proper investigation into Shady Habash’s death and illegal detention.”

“Shady Habash spent the last 793 days of his life behind bars for one reason alone: directing a film,” said journalist, author, and PEN America Trustee Masha Gessen, who endorsed the letter. “No artist should have to risk their life simply to express themselves. Yet the Egyptian government has again and again shown disregard for the fundamental right to freedom of expression, muzzling those who choose to speak out. Artists, writers, and journalists should never be criminalized for their expression, let alone held in indefinite and illegal pre-trial detention.”

“If Shady Habash has been freed, as Egyptian authorities were legally required to do, he would still be with us today,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Instead, for the simple act of making a music video, he faced a de facto death sentence. Egyptian authorities continue to detain artists and writers who creatively dissent in pre-trial detention, in blatant violation of national and international standards. We emphatically call for the freedom of all those artists and writers in pre-trial detention today. We hope authorities will heed the terrible lesson learned from Shady’s death and release others in his situation immediately.”

Read the full letter in English and Arabic here.

PEN America also leads the Artists at Risk Connection, a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. Last month, ARC launched Amani: Africa Creative Defence Network, a coalition of organizations working in or on Africa aiming to better protect artists at risk in the region. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here. PEN America recently launched the inaugural Freedom to Write Index, which records and maps cases of imprisoned writers across the globe in an annual report.