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Egypt: Activist Patrick Zaki released following international pressure

The researcher's detention has sparked criticism in Italy where he was a student before his arrest 22 months ago
Patrick Zaki after his release on Wednesday 8 December 2021 (Screengrab/EIPR)

Human rights activist Patrick Zaki was freed on Wednesday, a day after Egypt's Emergency State Security Misdemeanour Court ordered his provisional release. 

Zaki, a 28-year-old researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), had been studying at Italy's Bologna University when he was taken into custody upon his return to Cairo in February 2020.

Despite his release, he still faces a range of charges, including "calling for protests without permission", "spreading false news" and "inciting violence and terrorism". His trial will resume on 1 February 2022.

Tuesday's hearing was the second time Zaki's trial has been adjourned since the first session, on 14 September 2020.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Middle East Eye that Zaki was subjected to physical torture in the days after his arrest.

Commenting on the court's ruling for his release, Amr Magdi, Egypt researcher for HRW, described it as "rare happy news" for Patrick and his family. 

"Its a win with a bitter taste," Magdi told MEE on Tuesday, pointing out that Zaki is technically still on trial as he has not been acquitted.

"He already spent two years in unjust detention and deplorable conditions, including physical torture by the National Security Agency when he was arrested."

Magdi added that Cairo seeks to "reduce international pressure in connection with certain high-profile cases" but that "does not indicate any change of course" with regards to the detention of government critics.

Solidarity in Italy

Zaki had been an outspoken campaigner for the truth about the 2016 murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Egypt. Zaki's arrest sparked a solidarity campaign in Italy, with politicians and activists urging Egyptian authorities to release him. 

Italian human rights campaigners have expressed concerns that Zaki could be at risk of torture and ill-treatment in Egypt's notorious prisons, drawing parallels with the torture of Regeni. 

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Regeni's family has also expressed solidarity with the detained activist.

In April, the Italian senate voted to approve a proposal by two lawmakers urging the government to grant Zaki Italian citizenship.

Meanwhile, more than 50 Italian cities have announced the granting of “honorary citizenship” to Zaki. This was done, EIPR said, in order to show their appreciation for him as a human rights defender and to demand his immediate release in a campaign called 100 Cities with Patrick, launched by a group of human rights activists in Italy.

Egypt has embarked on a brutal crackdown on dissent since 2013, jailing more than 60,000 activists and imposing strict censorship measures on public discourse.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led the 2013 coup, has consistently denied that there are political prisoners in Egypt, framing the crackdown as part of a fight against terrorism.