Egyptian court releases researcher Patrick Zaki

Zaki, who was arrested in Cairo in February 2020, will still have to face trial next year for ‘spreading fake news’.

A portrait of the Egyptian student and activist Patrick Zaki on the facade of Rome's town hall, Italy [File: Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

An Egyptian court ordered the release pending trial of jailed researcher Patrick George Zaki, a move welcomed by human rights defenders and the prime minister of Italy where he had been studying.

The court in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura postponed Zaki’s trial until February 1 to give prosecutors and defence lawyers time to prepare their arguments, said the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which represents Zaki, on Tuesday.

Zaki was arrested on February 7, 2020, after he landed at Cairo’s international airport on a visit to see his family. He is accused of “spreading false news” in relation to an article he wrote about the plight of Christians in Egypt.

Zaki had been held in pretrial detention for more than a year-and-a-half before his trial began in September.

He previously worked as a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a leading independent rights group in the country.

Arguments in the trial still need to be heard when it resumes with the date set for February 1, said EIPR’s Lobna Darwish.

“The judge just postponed and released him in the meantime,” she said, adding it was not immediately clear how quickly Zaki would be physically released.

Zaki was initially present at Tuesday’s hearing in his hometown of Mansoura, north of Cairo, but was no longer in the room when the judge announced his decision, Darwish said.

In July, Italian lawmakers formally called on the government to grant Zaki citizenship in an effort to help gain his release.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed “satisfaction” in a statement from his office on Tuesday. “The issue has been and will be closely watched by the Italian government,” it said.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Twitter: “First goal achieved. Patrick Zaki is no longer in prison.”

Translation: The Mansoura Misdemeanor Court decided to release Patrick George Zaki, postponing his trial until February 1, 2022.

EIPR says Zaki was beaten, subjected to electric shocks, and threatened following his arrest. Egyptian authorities have not commented on EIPR’s assertions.

“I’m jumping for joy!” his mother Hala Sobhy told AFP news agency. “We’re now on our way to the police station in Mansoura.”

The move was welcomed by human rights activists who have long fought for his release, such as Riccardo Noury, spokesman for Amnesty International Italy.

“Despite the fact he is still under trial, this is a huge step forward,” Noury wrote on Twitter.

Amr Abdelwahab, an activist and friend of the jailed researcher, warned Zaki could still face jail time.

“They are still trying Patrick for writing an article, we are not sure if he can travel or if he needs to spend time in police stations. We are not sure they won’t sentence him to prison in Feb,” he said on social media.

Rights activists say Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on freedoms – including banning all unauthorised demonstrations – since first taking power in 2013 and then winning elections in 2014.

Tens of thousands of people have been jailed, human rights groups say. El-Sisi says security and stability are paramount and denies there are political prisoners in Egypt.

Laws in Egypt have expanded the definition of “terrorism” to include all political dissent, granting prosecutors broad power to keep people detained for months, even years, without ever filing charges or presenting evidence.

Zaki’s arrest has rattled Italy, where the researcher is pursuing a Master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the University of Bologna. It follows the 2016 killing in Egypt of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, which shook relations between the two countries.

No one has been arrested over the killing of the 28-year-old, despite Italian prosecutors charging four members of Egypt’s security forces of kidnapping and murdering Regeni.

Italy began the trial against the four suspects, but proceedings were suspended in October because of concerns the men might not know they had been charged.

“We will keep supporting him,” Erasmo Palazzotto, president of the Italian parliamentary inquiry into Regeni’s death, wrote on Twitter, referring to the Zaki case.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies