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The Zaky case. Free at once!

It has been one year. Exactly one year and one day from 7 February 2020.
7 February 2020 was Patrick George Zaki’s last day of freedom and his first day of pre-trial detention in Egyptian prisons.
But who is Patrick George Zaky? What is his story? Why the imprisonment? Why…?
Patrick Zaky is an Egyptian boy who moved to Bologna in August 2019 for study purposes, as he was attending Erasmus Mundi’s ‘Gemma’ master’s programme in gender and women’s studies.

In Bologna, home to the oldest western university, Zaky was fighting for the rights of all oppressed minorities in Egypt. He had also become the coordinator of the campaign to support Christian communities driven out of northern Sinai by the advancing Islamic State and displaced in the town of Ismilia. He also fought for the rights of the LGBT community.

Zaky had also started writing articles on this latter topic, despite the fear that the article might also be translated into Arabic. In fact, in Egypt, unlike various Western countries, this topic is still grounds for prosecution. Unfortunately, these articles have been translated and this civil commitment has reached Egypt. In September, Zaky had also published a long article in English concerning violations of the rights of LGBT people in Egypt, describing the reprisal against those who had displayed rainbow flags at the concert of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila, and reporting a sharp increase in arrests of LGBT people.

On 7 February 2020, he decided to fly to Egypt to spend a few days with his parents in Mansoura, his hometown, 130 km north of Cairo.

As soon as he landed in Cairo, Zaky was stopped by the police, then disappeared for the next 24 hours, and finally transferred to Mansoura where, according to his lawyers, he has been interrogated about his work as an activist.

The news was reported by EIPR (Egyptian initiative for personal rights), the NGO with which the young Egyptian researcher works. His lawyers reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) agents kept Patrick blindfolded and handcuffed during the interrogation at the airport for 17 hours. During this interrogation, he has been repeatedly beaten on his stomach, on his back and tortured with electric shocks.

What Zaky did not know before leaving for Egypt is that he had been subject to an arrest warrant in his home country since last September.

So on 8 February 2020, he appeared in front of the prosecutor’s office in Mansoura for a new interrogation where he could only see his lawyer, Hoda Nasrallah, but not his family.

Subsequently, on 25 August, Patrick had a brief meeting with his mother. In recent months, the family had received only two short letters from Patrick, compared to at least 20 that he had written and sent.

After exhausting postponements, the first two hearings in the trial have only been held in July. In the second, on 26 July, Patrick Zaki could see his lawyers for the first time since 7 March. On that occasion, Patrick appeared visibly slimmed down.

On 26 September, following a new hearing, the court decided on a further postponement, then later on 7 December, the judge of the third anti-terrorism section of the Cairo court announced the renewal of the pre-trial detention for 45 days. The charge is subversive propaganda.

The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of Egypt plays a central role in all of this, as Amnesty International points out in its ‘permanent state of exception’ report, highlighting how the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office is complicit in enforced disappearances and torture. In addition, it systematically refuses to investigate allegations of enforced disappearance and torture, although it continues to present at trial confessions extracted by brutal methods. In some cases, defendants found guilty on this evidence have been put to death.

Amnesty International has documented 112 cases of enforced disappearance for periods of up to 183 days, mostly due to the responsibility of the National Security Agency (NSA). The above report also shows that the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office failed to investigate 46 cases of ill-treatment and torture raised by the NGO.

Finally, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office systematically fails to inform detainees of their rights, denies them access to lawyers, subjects them to coercive interrogations in which detainees are blindfolded, held in inhuman conditions, threatened with further interrogation and tortured by the NSA.

The role of Egypt is therefore fundamental.

In fact, the country would appear to the international community as a moderate country, the gentle giant that acts as peacekeeper between Israel and Palestine, but the truth is another and completely different: internal repression is present and very strong. This is the reason why guys, scholars, researchers like Zaky or Giulio Regeni become extremely troublesome.

In Egypt, the justice system is now less and less independent, the recent constitutional reform gives the President (currently Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) not only the presidency of the judiciary but also the possibility to appoint its heads.

So the accusation of terrorism is increasingly being employed by these governments in a pliable manner, used to target activists and dissidents.

It should also be added that since 2017, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has declared a state of emergency and what does this mean?

This gives a lot of power to the special courts for state security and to the Courts-Martial, but at the same time bypasses many of the rules written in the codes, which are in fact not respected. But even if the rules should be followed, the guarantees of the rule of law would be very weak: the law provides for the possibility of keeping a person under arrest without contact with the outside world for several days without judicial supervision. Torture, psychological pressure and other rights violations can then take place.  Despite the fact that Egypt acceded to the Convention against Torture in 1986, the law does not exclude the possibility of using information extracted through torture in court, and the penalties for officials who practice torture are virtually non-existent.

The Zacky case is in some ways similar to the Giulio Regeni case, in terms of the total lack of enforcement of the rule of law and of any international law in defence of human rights.

Unlike in the Regeni case, this time the University of Bologna and the academic community have taken a quick stand, unlike the English academic authorities for the Italian researcher, a timely reaction that could perhaps save his life. The important thing is that Italy continues to keep the attention high, to make the story known to as many people as possible, and thus put pressure on Egypt to release him.

By Michele Brunori

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