Egyptian court orders release of researcher after nearly two years in jail


An Egyptian court ordered the release of an activist imprisoned for nearly two years in a case that has intensified international scrutiny of the country’s human rights record.

Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian graduate studying in Italy, was arrested in February last year during a visit home after he wrote an article about discrimination of the country’s Christian minority.

“I’m jumping for joy!” his mother, Hala Sobhi, told AFP. “We’re now on our way to the police station in Mansoura,” a city in Egypt’s Nile Delta, where Zaki is from.

Zaki still faces charges of “spreading false news”, “harming national security” and “incitement to overthrow the state”, among others.

His trial has been postponed to February, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a local NGO with which he worked.

In September, Zaki was referred to trial in front of an exceptional state security court for an article containing excerpts from his personal diary recounting the discrimination faced by the country’s Coptic Christian minority.

Coptic Christians make up about 10-15% of the country’s population of more than 100 million.

Amnesty International previously said that Zaki had allegedly been tortured while being interrogated by national security officers, including using electric shocks and beating.

In June this year, his mother told AFP: “When I imagine his confinement, I feel like I’m suffocating … We thought he’d be jailed for a few weeks, but it has gone on for over a year.”

Zaki’s detention drew condemnation particularly in Italy, where he had been studying and which recently held a trial in absentia over the killing of Italian PhD candidate Giulio Regeni in Egypt in 2016.

Regeni’s body was found bearing signs of torture, several days after he went missing on the fifth anniversary of the 25 January uprising. An Italian parliamentary commission report recently blamed his torture and death on Egypt’s state security apparatus.

Thousands in Italy had signed petitions calling for Zaki’s release, and the country’s senate in April voted to grant him Italian citizenship, allowing him to receive consular support.

Shortly after the court’s decision, the Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, tweeted: “First goal achieved: Patrick Zaki is no longer in prison … A dutiful thanks to our diplomatic corps.”

Egypt’s space for dissent has been severely restricted since President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took office in 2014, with authorities particularly targeting EIPR in recent years.

Hossam Bahgat, who founded the rights group and was fined by a court last month for an “insulting” tweet, welcomed the news of Zaki’s release, writing: “Thank God” on social media.

Three EIPR staff were jailed last year, sparking an international campaign supported by celebrities including the actor Scarlett Johansson that resulted in their release.

Several researchers have been jailed, including Ahmed Samir, a postgraduate student at the Central European University in Vienna, and Kholoud Amer, head of the translation unit at the Library of Alexandria.

Egypt ranks in the lowest group on the Global Public Policy Institute’s Academic Freedom Index.

Also on Tuesday, five human rights groups called on the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to pressure Egypt to release Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath.

Macron had previously raised his case in a live press conference with Sisi in Paris but Shaath, the son of veteran Palestinian politician Nabil Shaath, has remained in prison since July 2019. (Source: The Guardian)