CAIRO—Egyptian authorities arrested Patrick George Zaki, a human rights scholar, upon his return to his country last week. The arrest revived the debate about the future of the freedom of expression and freedom for research in Egypt.
Zaki is a human rights scholar with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights organization that is one of the few local human rights organizations still operating in Egypt. Zaki was arrested upon returning home from Italy, where he is working toward a master’s degree at the University of Bologna. He had come home to spend a vacation with his family.
His arrest warrant was issued last September, after he traveled to Italy, but lawyers say he was not aware of that. When he came to Cairo he was immediately detained at the airport, although no formal public statement had been made about what his offenses were. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says Zaki was tortured after being detained.
Egypt’s Ministry of Interior said that Zaki’s arrest was the result of a previous decision by public prosecutors, who ordered his detention for 15 days, pending the investigation of criminal charges. A court hearing is scheduled for February 22.
The organization that he works for says the authorities are holding him on charges of spreading false news, misuse of social media, and incitement to demonstrate without permission.
His family in Egypt has issued a statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Zaki, the dismissal of all charges against him and the freedom to complete his studies abroad.
“The country has turned into a big prison, and the fate of those who return to it if they participated in the revolution or worked on research that does not agree with the whims of the politicians in charge will be imprisonment.”Mina Thabet
A human rights researcher and a friend of Zaki
“Our son never posed any danger to anyone, he was a real help and support for many […],” the family’s statement said. “We did not expect him to be treated this way or to ever face such fears about his safety.”
Studies of Legal and Gender Issues
Zaki studied pharmacy at an Egyptian private university before switching to conduct legal research, specifically on gender issues. He found himself passionate about those issues, according to Amr Abdel-Wahab, 29, a Berlin-based colleague of Zaki’s.
Abdel-Wahab explained that Zaki wanted to study in Italy to fill the gaps in his understanding of the theoretical aspect of his work, by studying women’s rights and gender issues. He received a scholarship for his studies in Italy, and the research for his thesis took months.
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In a telephone interview with Al-Fanar Media, Abdel-Wahab said that Zaki “still needs to study for a year and a half to finish his program, which includes moving among different Italian universities during his studies.”
Abdel-Wahab, who got acquainted with Zaki during their involvement in the student movement at the university where they got their bachelor’s degrees, said that Zaki was determined to return to Egypt after completing his studies, to continue working in his research institution on the same issues in more depth, and to discover more solutions to problems facing women and minorities.
Reminders of Other Researchers’ Fates
Zaki’s arrest reminds some observers of the murder of a young Italian researcher, Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, in Cairo nearly four years ago. Regeni was conducting research in Cairo about Egypt’s labor movement and his body was found mutilated with traces of torture in a Cairo suburb in 2016. (See a related article, “The Price of Egypt’s Anti-Cosmopolitanism”.)
The new case is also a reminder of the case of Mina Thabet, 29, a human rights researcher and a friend of Zaki’s, who was held in an Egyptian prison in April 2016 on charges of spreading false news, a charge that is often used when the government disagrees with the viewpoint of news articles.
Zaki’s arrest reminds some observers of the murder of a young Italian researcher, Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student at Cambridge University, in Cairo nearly four years ago.
In a phone call from London, Thabet said that the arrest of Zaki is a message to everyone that “the country has turned into a big prison, and the fate of those who return to it if they participated in the revolution or worked on research that does not agree with the whims of the politicians in charge will be imprisonment.”
Thabet, who just finished studying for a master’s degree in peace building and justice studies at the University of Edinburgh, is concerned about his friend’s academic future.
“Patrick’s detention will greatly affect the completion of his studies,” Thabet said. Zaki could lose his scholarship, for instance, which was the result of a lot of hard work and the passing of multiple examinations, Thabet said.
International Concern Over Zaki
In statements posted on Facebook, Italy’s under secretary of education, Giuseppe de Cristofaro, expressed his “deep concern over Patrick Zaki’s situation” and described Zaki as “the victim of a detention without any justification and, as is now evident, of inadmissible violence and torture.”
De Cristofaro also called on the European Union “intervene firmly with the Egyptian government to prevent a young man, whose sole responsibility is the passion for study and research, from again falling victim to intolerable state violence.”
Amnesty International also called for Zaki’s immediate release, and Human Rights Watch said that his arrest is a “serious escalation of an Egyptian campaign targeting human rights groups and defenders.”
Dozens of students in Italy organized a demonstration to call on the authorities in Cairo to release the Egyptian student, to allow him complete his studies, and to stop restricting freedom of expression.
Zaki’s first message to his friends and the Egyptian authorities, from within the prison, was to ask for the textbooks he needed to study for his next scheduled exam in March, said his friend Abdel-Wahab.