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Patrick Zaki's release an effort to whitewash Egypt's regime, says rights advocate

Patrick George Zaki was kidnapped by Egyptian security forces from Bologna [Human Rights Monitor/Twitter]
Patrick George Zaki was kidnapped by Egyptian security forces from Bologna [Human Rights Monitor/Twitter]

Egyptian activist and former EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaki has been released from detention after 22 months.

According to Mada Masr, his mother Hala Sobhy fainted upon hearing the news that the court had ordered his release. "I'm jumping for joy!" she told AFP. "We're now on our way to the police station in Mansoura."

Patrick was arrested in 2020 whilst on a trip home from Italy, held incommunicado, beaten, and tortured by electric shock.

At the end of September, he stood trial on charges of spreading false news in relation to an article he wrote for Daraj about his life as a Coptic Christian in Egypt which detailed discrimination against the minority.

His case has attracted significant attention and international condemnation, particularly in Italy where he was studying for his master's degree in gender and women's studies at the University of Bologna.

READ: MENA worst region in the world for civic rights violations

In April the Italian Senate voted to grant Patrick honorary Italian citizenship to help expedite his release.

According to human rights advocate Ahmed Al-Attar, the order for Patrick's release is a political decision and came from the top: "[President Abdel Fattah] Sisi would like to have a good reputation in the world and the news of Patrick's release will now be published in Italian and European newspapers. He is whitewashing his reputation."

The Egyptian government has been under increased pressure recently over human rights concerns, particularly after the US announced that it was withholding a portion of its annual military aid until solid progress is evident.

Around the same time, the UN's Universal Periodic Review criticised Egypt's human rights record whilst 31 European countries issued a statement to say that they were deeply concerned about restrictions to freedom of expression and the application of terror legislation against peaceful critics.

Patrick's case has underscored the plight of Egyptian political prisoners. Thousands have been jailed in Egypt since 2013 where they are systematically tortured, denied medical attention, and sentenced to death at an alarming rate.

In September the government announced a new human rights strategy which has been described by the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Gamal Eid, as "a document to solely improve the image of the regime" since there appears to be no significant improvement for civil rights.

READ: UN calls on Egypt to immediately release opposition activists

Still, the decision to release Patrick is likely to appease Italian authorities and ensure that arms deals between the two countries continue, Al-Attar adds.

Last year, Italy confirmed it had struck a deal for the sale of two warships to Egypt worth an estimated $1.2 billion, despite serious opposition from human rights groups.

"The government has betrayed us," announced the parents of Giulio Regeni, who was also Italian, in the aftermath of the deal. The case of their son remains unresolved until today. Regeni was murdered by Egyptian security officers in early 2016 whilst conducting research into independent trade unions in Cairo. He was accused of being a spy.

A post-mortem examination showed that he had been tortured before his death – his teeth were broken, and he had multiple fractures in his shoulders, wrists, and feet.

Regeni's murder became a source of tension between the two countries with Rome at one point recalling its ambassador from Cairo. But slowly relations warmed again.

Patrick had campaigned for the truth to be revealed about Regeni's death amidst a cover-up in the Egyptian government, and their refusal to cooperate over the trial. The family of Giulio Regeni has also shown their support for Patrick.

READ: Egypt's president ratifies new covid law critics fear could further stifle civil liberties

There are two major issues standing in the way of relations between the Italian and Egyptian governments: Giulio Regeni and Patrick Zaki.

The case of Regeni is never going anywhere, rights advocate Al-Attar says because what happened to him is too horrific for the Egyptian authorities to admit their culpability.

"It's like what happened to Jamal Khashoggi," he says, in relation to the Saudi journalist who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Where is Jamal Khashoggi?... - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Where is Jamal Khashoggi?… – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Italy did begin a trial against four Egyptian security officers suspected of killing Regeni, but it was later suspended after a judge in Rome said it was not clear whether the defendants were formally aware they were charged in his abduction, torture, and killing. Egyptian authorities have consistently refused to give up their addresses.

Despite the joy at Patrick's release, he must still stand trial again in February and the court might rule that he must return to prison. To date, he has spent two years in pretrial detention having been arrested for simply writing a news article.

"He shouldn't have spent a single day in jail," said EU advocate at Human Rights Watch Claudio Francavilla on Twitter. "Like thousands of other political prisoners in Sisi's Egypt."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleEgyptEurope & RussiaItalyOpinion
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