By The Washington Post · Sudarsan Raghavan · WORLD, AFRICA
It was unclear how Shady Habash, 24, held in the capital's maximum-security Tora prison for two years, died. But it brought renewed focus on conditions inside Egypt's overcrowded prisons and what human rights activists have decried as the poor treatment of inmates.
"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 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 is "overcrowded, unsanitary, and suffer 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-Fattah el-Sissi. The title refers to a character in a popular Egyptian movie who is considered a repetitive liar - and the implication that Sissi is like that character. Sung by Ramy Essam, who is in exile in Sweden, the tune denounced Sissi's rule.
After their arrest, Essam publicly said the two men had nothing to do with song's content or message. But they were charged with spreading false news and being a member 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 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.
Last week, Egypt released roughly 4,000 inmates to commemorate Sinai Liberation Day, which celebrates the 1982 Israeli military withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. But none of the released were political prisoners.
Instead, Sissi's government has imposed stricter coronavirus restrictions, preventing family visits that has left prisoners feel even more isolated. Several are currently on hunger strikes to protest conditions.
They include Mohamed Amashah, a 24-year-old Egyptian-American from Jersey City, New Jersey, 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, following small anti-government protests.
Mohamed Morsi, the nation's first democratically elected head of state who was ousted in a 2013 military coup, died last year 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 had 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.
Last 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, said his lawyer. Gamal remains behind bars.