The trial of Patrick George Zaki, a researcher and human rights advocate detained since early last year, has begun in Egypt.
The 30-year-old, who was on leave from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) to pursue studies in Italy at the time of his arrest in February 2020, appeared before a special emergency state security court in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on Tuesday.
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Held in pre-trial detention for 19 months, Zaki was charged on Monday with “spreading false news inside and outside of the country”, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail.
In the indictment, Egypt’s State Security Supreme Prosecution (SSSP) cited as grounds for arrest an article, written by the researcher two years ago, in which he gave a personal account of his hardships as a Copt in Egypt.
“It’s really unpleasant to think that someone could go to prison for up to five years for writing an article,” Hussein Baoumi, researcher on Egypt and Libya at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera.
Baoumi said that, while these courts should only try the most serious terrorist crimes, “the Egyptian authorities have been using the whole counterterrorism discourse in order to imprison and punish peaceful opponents and critics.”
The court was adjourned to September 28. It remains unclear how long it will take for the exceptional court, where rulings cannot be appealed, to reach a verdict.
Present at the hearing were representatives from the embassies of Italy, Germany, Canada and a lawyer from the European Union. Zaki was studying for a Master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the University of Bologna in Italy when he was detained on February 7, 2020, after landing in Cairo for what was supposed to be a brief visit home.
Zaki’s arrest has rattled Italy, where the case has drawn parallels with the disappearance of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, whose mutilated body was found on the outskirts of Cairo on February 3, 2016. The Italian branch of Amnesty International has been spearheading efforts to pressure the Ministry of Interior into giving Zaki Italian citizenship. Mayors in some municipalities have autonomously awarded the researcher honorary citizenship.
Zaki’s lawyers said last year the researcher has been tortured and threatened during his interrogations, an allegation rejected by Egypt’s top prosecutor.
Egypt’s national security agency maintains Zaki is responsible for circulating what it described as “inflammatory material against the state institutions and figures”.
The indictment came days after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi launched the National Strategy for Human Rights 2021-2026 on Saturday.
According to a presidential statement, the strategy aims to enhance the respect of “all civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights,” including those of religious minorities.
“I don’t think Egypt needs more documents about what strategy should be adopted for human rights, what is lacking is the political will,” Amr Magdi, researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
Magdi said Egypt’s strategy was in stark contrast to the latest developments on the ground.
Members of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, who have been documenting and exposing rights violations via their social media accounts, appeared before an emergency court on Saturday.
And on Monday, Egyptian political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been held in pre-trial detention for nearly two years, informed his lawyer that he was contemplating suicide due to the dire conditions of his detention.
“We don’t see any indications that the Egyptian government is willing to ease its nationwide repression or to address any of the systematic abuses,” Magdi said.
The European Parliament passed a resolution in December urging member states to consider imposing targeted restrictions against Egypt, in response to its “continued and intensifying crackdown on fundamental rights and, among others, the persecution of human rights defenders”.
The resolution also appeared to reprimand European Union states for failing to prioritise human rights over economic interests, urging the bloc’s members to halt all exports of military equipment.
Egypt has rejected the claims, accusing the European Parliament of pursuing “politicised objectives and an unbalanced policy”.