Egypt’s president pardons detained researcher Patrick Zaki

CAIRO (Reuters) -Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pardoned rights researcher Patrick Zaki a day after he was handed a three-year prison term on charges of spreading false news in a case that drew new attention to Egypt’s crackdown on dissent.

Zaki had been studying in Italy before his detention during a trip home in 2020 over a news article in which he documented life as a Coptic Christian in Egypt.

He will return to Italy on Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said in a statement in which she thanked Sisi for a “very important act”.

Sisi’s pardon, which was reported by state news agency and confirmed by lawyers, also included Mohamed El-Baqer, a rights lawyer who represented Egypt’s well-known activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah and was arrested in 2019 while attending his client’s interrogation.

The United States welcomed the release of Zaki and Baqer and called on Egypt to free “all unjustly detained political prisoners”, a State Department spokesman said.

“Human rights progress will strengthen our bilateral relationship,” spokesman Matthew Miller said on Twitter.

Zaki’s case gained widespread attention in Italy, which had already been jolted by the killing and torture in Egypt of Italian student Giulio Regeni in 2016. Four Egyptian security officials have been charged in Italy over Regeni’s disappearance and murder, while Egyptian officials have repeatedly denied involvement.

After Zaki’s sentencing on Tuesday, Meloni had said Italy still had confidence over his case, while a U.S. state department spokesman urged Egypt to release Zaki immediately.

The head of Egypt’s national dialogue, a state-controlled initiative to debate the country’s future, had appealed to Sisi to use his constitutional powers to have Zaki freed as several members of the dialogue’s board signalled they were quitting over the verdict.

Zaki, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), had served 22 months in pre-trial detention before being released in December 2021 pending the completion of his trial. EIPR said he was subjected to torture following his arrest.

His arrest came amidst a far-reaching crackdown on dissent under Sisi, who led the overthrow of democratically elected Islamist leader Mohamed Mursi a decade ago, before becoming president the following year.

Many of those swept up in the crackdown remain in prison, including senior Muslim Brotherhood figures and Abd el-Fattah.

Authorities have justified the arrests on security grounds.

Since late 2021 Egypt has taken a number of steps which it says are aimed at addressing human rights, including amnesties for some prominent prisoners, but critics have dismissed the moves as cosmetic and say arrests have continued.

“Baqer and Patrick should not have spent one day in jail for their human rights work,” EIPR head Hossam Bahgat said in a tweet. “We welcome the news of their pardon and call for the immediate release of thousands still detained in Egypt on political grounds.”

(Reporting by Yomna Ehab, Alaa Swilam, Mohamed Waly, Hatem Maher and Angelo Amante; Writing by Nadine Awadalla and Aidan Lewis; Editing by Aurora Ellis)