Egypt sentences rights researcher Patrick Zaki to 3 years in jail

By Aidan Lewis

CAIRO (Reuters) -An Egyptian court on Tuesday sentenced Patrick Zaki, a rights researcher who had been studying in Italy, to a three-year jail sentence for spreading false news, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and a judicial source said.

Zaki was arrested during a visit to Egypt in February 2020, while he was a graduate student at the University of Bologna. He was charged with disseminating false information over an article he wrote about the plight of Egypt’s Christians.

He served 22 months in pre-trial detention before being released, pending the completion of his trial at an emergency state security court in his hometown of Mansoura. The sentence cannot be appealed in higher courts, but it can be ratified or annulled by the president.

“He has been arrested now and is being transferred to jail,” said EIPR head Hossam Bahgat after the sentence was announced.

The sentence comes as a long crackdown on dissent continues under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president when he was army chief a decade ago and then became president himself a year later.

Zaki had worked as a researcher at EIPR, a leading independent rights group, which says he was subjected to torture following his arrest.

“This is a travesty of justice but unfortunately it is all too common,” said Bahgat. “We are calling on the president to immediately cancel this verdict.”

A judicial source said the time served in pretrial detention would be discounted from the sentence.

Zaki’s case has drawn wide attention in Italy, which had already been shocked by the 2016 killing in Egypt of Italian student Giulio Regeni. Observers from Western embassies who tried to attend hearings of Zaki’s trial were not allowed inside the courtroom on Tuesday, according to Bahgat and a diplomat.

“Our commitment to a positive resolution of Patrick Zaki’s case has never ceased, it continues, we still have confidence,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said in a statement.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson urged the Egyptian authorities to release Zaki immediately, “along with other prisoners currently detained on charges related to the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”

Sisi and other officials say security measures were needed to stabilise Egypt, and that the judicial system is fair and independent. Since late 2021 authorities have taken steps they say are aimed at addressing human rights, but critics have dismissed these as cosmetic.

This year they also launched a national political dialogue to debate the country’s future, though the process has been overshadowed by continuing arrests.

Negad el-Borai, a prominent rights lawyer, said Zaki’s sentencing had rendered his presence on the board of trustees of the dialogue “pointless”.

“I accepted membership as a volunteer in my attempt to bridge the gap between the human rights movement and the state and its institutions but I did not succeed,” he said on Twitter.

Diaa Rashwan, who heads both the national dialogue and Egypt’s state information service, said the board had appealed to Sisi to use his constitutional powers to have Zaki immediately released.

Zaki, who was subject to a travel ban, had been awarded a masters degree from Bologna University last week after defending his thesis by video link.

(Reporting by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Sharon Singleton, William Maclean and Daniel Wallis)