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The New Arab Staff

US-based Egyptian filmmaker detained in Egypt in 'outrageous' crackdown on artistic freedom

Mustafa Hassanien was arrested on vague charges when visiting family in Egypt [Twitter]

Date of publication: 29 September, 2020

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PEN has raised alarm that a US-based Egyptian filmmaker's health is in danger after spending months in pre-trial detention in Egypt following his arrest on 'illegitimate charges' while visiting family
The detention of a 22-year-old Egyptian filmmaker on allegedly "illegitimate charges" has prompted stinging condemnation from human rights groups and spread fear for his well-being less than five months after the death of filmmaker Shady Habash behind bars.

Egypt authorities arrested Mustafa Ali Hassanien, who had been studying at CUNY College of Staten Island in the US, on 14 May at Cairo airport as he was returned to the country for a family visit.

Since then he has been held in pre-trial detention and faces a handful of charges that rights groups say are politically motivated and are retribution for his criticism of the government.

PEN America and the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR) said in a statement that Hassanien's detention was "an inexcusable violation of artistic freedom and a blatant attempt to silence political dissent". 

Julie Trebault, the director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America, said: "The outrageous arrest of this young artist is just one more indication of Egypt’s flagrant and disturbing hostility to freedom of expression."

Trebault highlighted the case of Shady Habash, who died in May after over two years in pre-trial detention.


"Now, Hassanien is not only being held on illegitimate charges, but also faces serious health risks as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in Egyptian detention facilities, and as prisoners lack access to proper medical care," said Trebault.

"How many more artists must face threats to their lives for merely expressing themselves?" she added.

ARC has called on the Egyptian authorities to release Hassanien "immediately and unconditionally".

Hassanien has been critical of the Egyptian government both at home and during his time in the US. He is currently enrolled as a student of Cinema Studies at the College of Staten Island (CSI) CUNY.

Hassanien faces an array of vague charges including "spreading false news", "disturbing public security", and "belonging to a terrorist organisation".

Such charges are often levelled against political dissidents in Egypt.

However the filmmaker is currently being held without any formal charges at Tora prison, infamous for its dire conditions, according to ARC.

His detention was renewed for the seventh time on 24 August.

Hassanien's arrest comes as Egyptian authorities wage an increasingly harsh crackdown on anyone deemed to be critical of the government. Those swept up in the crackdown include journalists, artists, lawyers, academics, and even social media influencers.

The Egyptian authorities have also been accused of exploiting the pre-trial detention system and avoiding formally charging or allowing trials for detainees by continually renewing short pre-trial sentences far beyond the legal limit of two years.

Film-maker Shady Habash died aged 24 inside the Tora prison complex on 2 May. 

Egypt's public prosecutor claimed that Habash had mistakenly drunk hand sanitiser in his cell, thinking it was water, however, government critics have been sceptical of this account.

Tora prison is known for it appalling conditions, including deliberate withholding of medical care and a lack of precautions during the spread of Covid-19.

Habash was arrested after working on the post-production of a music video for the song "Balaha" which mocked President Sisi.

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