February 20, 2020
[Regeni embraces Zaki in graffiti on the Egyptian Embassy in Rome: “this time everything will be fine”]
In the early morning of February 7th, Patrick George Zaki, Gender and Human Rights researcher at The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) was taken into custody by the Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) at Cairo Airport and disappeared for the following 24 hours. Zaki left Egypt in August 2019 after winning an EU-Funded scholarship to participate in the GEMMA Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies. At the time of his arrest, he was a student at the University of Bologna in Italy.
Samuel Tharwat, his lawyer, told Amnesty International that Zaki was kept blindfolded and handcuffed throughout a 17-hour interrogation at the airport and then at an unknown NSA location in Mansoura. During the interrogation, Zaki was beaten and tortured with low-voltage electric shocks, while being questioned about his work on human rights and his residence in Italy. The day after, Zaki appeared before the Public Prosecutor in Mansoura and was presented by the police with a report which falsely claimed that he was arrested at a checkpoint in his hometown, pursuant to an outstanding warrant issued in September 2019.
He was accused of publishing rumours and false news that aim to disturb social peace and sow chaos; inciting protests without permission from the relevant authorities with the aim of undermining state authority; calling for the overthrow of the state; managing a social media account that aimed to undermine social order and public safety; inciting violence and terrorist crimes. With these accusations, the Prosecutor ordered his detention for the following 15 days to allow further investigations. On February 12th, Zaki’s lawyer registered a leave to appeal, which was then accepted by the Mansoura Prosecution. The date for the hearing of the appeal was set on February 15th, but the Mansoura II Misdemeanours Appeals Court rejected the appeal, re-confirming Zaki’s detention until February 22nd. On this date, he will be standing in front of the Prosecutor again. Every allegation of torture has been denied by Egypt’s top Prosecutor. As the accusations pending on him include terrorism, at the moment Zaki could risk a life sentence.
Since his arrest, Amnesty International has called for Zaki’s unconditional and immediate release. In the following days, the University of Bologna established a crisis group to work with government authorities, including the University’s minister and the Italian Embassy in Cairo. The Rector of the University of Bologna called the student community to join the demonstration for his release, while the Mayor of Bologna promised him a honorary citizenship after his return. Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement: “They must open an independent investigation into the torture he has suffered and urgently ensure his protection. […] The authorities’ arbitrary arrest and torture of Patrick Zaki is yet another example of the state’s deep-rooted repression of perceived opponents and human rights’ defenders, which reaches more audacious levels with each passing day.” Demanding an end to the continued harassment and arbitrary detention of human rights professionals, members of civil society and journalist, EIPR claimed that since October 2019 six of its staff members have been temporarily detained and interrogated.
Despite the fact that broad media visibility is somehow protecting Zaki from further abuses by the NSA, on an international scale the case is highlighting the weaknesses of EU institutions and EU members. The Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs has advised that “the Italian Embassy in Egypt is monitoring and making every effort”, but – to justify his refusal to withdraw the Ambassador – “the dialog with Egypt has to be maintained.” David Sassoli, the EP President, called for Zaki’s immediate release on February 12th in Strasbourg and reminded the Egyptian authorities that “EU relations with third countries rely on respect for human and civil rights, as confirmed by many resolutions approved by the European Parliament.” The High Representative Josep Borrell is expected to discuss the issue during the next Foreign Affairs Council.
In Egypt, the EP President’s speech was depicted as a threat to Egyptian sovereignty. “This statement has exceeded all limits and represents an assault on the sovereignty of judicial, legislative and executive authorities in Egypt” commented Soliman Wahden, Deputy Speaker of the Egyptian House of Representatives. Alaa Abed, Head of the Egyptian Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, also added that: “Egypt is fully committed to observing human rights in dealing with detainees and stands against exploiting this issue for political reasons. […] Such statements also discourage dialogue between the two parliamentary bodies because they were based on politicized organisations that lack credibility.”
Amnesty International said that the case recalled the murder of Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge researcher killed in 2016 while gathering information upon “politically sensitive subjects” in Egypt. After his disappearance on January 25th 2016, Regeni’s body was discovered in a ditch nine days later. His mother had said that the body was so disfigured that she could only recognize him from the tip of his nose. Egyptian officials were accused of deliberately trying to mislead the investigations and cover up the researcher’s death. Despite the admission that NSA was monitoring Regeni’s activities, after four years still no one has been charged for his death.