The Public Prosecution office in Mansoura, Egypt, renewed the preventive detention of Egyptian researcher and activist Patrick George Zaki on February 22 in an ongoing investigation into several charges brought against the 27-year-old. He remains in custody for another 15 days facing allegations of spreading false news, inciting demonstrations against the state, and managing a social media account to disturb public order and harm national security.
“A bad and cruel decision,” Riccardo Noury, spokesman for Amnesty International in Italy, commented to ANSA on the public prosecutor’s decision, “that will not stop the mobilization to ask for his release”. The day before the crucial hearing, he warned that renewal of detention would open “the worst-case scenario,” alluding to the infamous tendency of Egyptian authorities to re-order the detention period before trial indefinitely.
Under Egyptian law, pre-trial detention can be used if the defendant has no permanent address or is unlikely to appear for trial, is perceived as posing a threat to national security, or the evidence may be tampered with or destroyed. None of which applies to Zaki, as Amnesty Italy’s spokesman noted, stressing that there is no possibility of polluting evidence or changing the course of investigations in his particular case.
Despite being a preventative and exceptional measure, the use of prolonged pre-trial detention has become common practice in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in July 2013.
Despite being a preventative and exceptional measure, the use of prolonged pre-trial detention has become common practice in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in July 2013. Today, the judiciary is using it as a tool of political repression to silence any form of dissent.
“It was an expected decision. Egyptian justice never fails to live up to our apprehensions,” Antonella Napoli, chief editor of Focus on Africa, wrote in her analysis following the detention renewal session.
Police arrested Zaki, a graduate student at the University of Bologna in Italy, at Cairo airport on February 7 as he was on his way home to visit family. His lawyers said the young Egyptian had disappeared for 24 hours and suffered beatings and electric shocks during interrogations about his work and activism before appearing at the Mansoura prosecution office the day after his arrest.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), where Zaki previously worked as a gender rights researcher, the country’s Chief Prosecutor denied the torture allegations. A statement from the prosecutor’s office falsely said the graduate student was arrested at a checkpoint in Mansoura, about 120km north of Cairo, on February 8.
On that basis, EIPR’s attorneys are making a case against Zaki’s imprisonment. They filed two complaints with the General Public Prosecutor calling for investigations into the alleged falsification of the arrest report, and the torture and physical assault on the researcher.
As a sign of the international attention the case has drawn, the first renewal hearing saw a small crowd to support Zaki in his hometown of Mansoura. His lawyers, colleagues from EIPR, a group of friends, as well as representatives from the Italian embassy and the European Union were present. There had been a similar gathering at the appeal session one week before, when an appeal court upheld the first detention order.
Amr Abd Al-Rahman, director of EIPR, explained that a network of people in Egypt are mobilizing intensely these days. “Lawyers are working on Patrick’s file day and night to ensure his release. Other rights groups, political activists, and friends are helping too. They won’t rest unless he’s out soon,” he told Inside Arabia.
The campaign for Zaki’s liberation is now set to be even stronger with increasing appeals from human rights organizations both at home and abroad adding to the pressure on Egypt.
The campaign for Zaki’s liberation is now set to be even stronger with increasing appeals from human rights organizations both at home and abroad adding to the pressure on Egypt. Several groups such as EIPR and Amnesty Italy have issued statements.
The University of Bologna and its academic community have taken a strong stance in demanding justice for Zaki. Students across several cities in Italy have held demonstrations. People concerned with Zaki’s safety are keeping the #FreePatrick hashtag alive.
The Bologna football club has also expressed its solidarity with the young man. “Bologna is here! We’re waiting for you to come back to the stadium very soon!” was its message on February 22. Activists and supporters held a candlelight vigil in Rome a few days prior, on February 20.
Italian politicians asked the government to inquire about the arrest and mistreatment of the student. The European parliament president, David Sassoli, called for his immediate release two weeks ago.
“If Patrick’s detention is renewed, everybody must know that we will see weeks or even months of campaigning,” Noury told Inside Arabia ahead of the recent court hearing.
Although the jailed activist has not suffered further abuse, his conditions remain inadequate while he is held in an overcrowded facility that is far away from where his family home. Moreover, his psychological state has likely been affected, as the 27-year-old is waiting for this nightmare to end.
The unlawful imprisonment of Zaki, who was arrested simply for his human rights work and political opinions expressed on social media, has dug up painful memories of the disappearance and killing of 28-year-old Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Egypt in 2016. Despite presumed cooperation between Egyptian and Italian prosecutors, no one has been arrested or charged over his murder after four years of investigation.
In reality, Zaki’s incident and ordeal spotlight the plight of tens of thousands of Egyptians detained as a result of the country’s abusive pre-trial detention system that grants judges and prosecutors broad powers to jail defendants before and during trial, and hold them in custody without filing charges or presenting evidence. An oppressive measure targeting dissidents that can go on for months or even years, with a two-year legal limit.
“A lot of political detainees have spent months in enforced disappearance. Patrick spent much less, and that’s thanks to external pressure.”
Unlike most other prisoners, the university student can count on the support of a circle of people who have been making noise since the day he went incommunicado. He spent the first ten hours of his arrest in the state security investigation office, according to EIPR, then his whereabouts were known the next day. “A lot of political detainees have spent months in enforced disappearance. Patrick spent much less, and that’s thanks to external pressure,” Al-Rahman told Inside Arabia
EIPR demands the immediate release of Zaki without pressing charges and dismissal of the case as the group does not see “any basis for criminal prosecution.”
If the prosecution and judiciary abide by Egyptian law, there is nothing that should keep the young academic in provisional detention in the absence of well-founded charges. But, if their political judgement interferes in the legal matter, hopes to see Zaki free will fade. The legal fight for Zaki’s freedom only just started, and the mobilization effort is building.