On Friday, 7 February, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) researcher Patrick George Zaki was detained at Cairo airport on his return home from Bologna, Italy, where he was studying for a postgraduate degree in Gender and Human Rights. EIPR, one of Egypt’s leading human rights organizations, reported that Zaki was returning for a family visit when he was taken into the custody of Egypt’s National Security Investigations (NSI), who accused Zaki of various crimes including incitement to protest and publishing false news. According to his lawyers, Zaki was beaten, subjected to electric shocks, threatened, and questioned about his human rights activism. Amnesty International has revealed that officers kept him blindfolded and handcuffed throughout his questioning. Latest reports from Amnesty International and EIPR state that Zaki is currently detained in a police station in al-Mansoura, pending further interrogation.
EIPR has demanded the immediate release of Zaki and an end to the arbitrary detention of human rights professionals, members of civil society groups and journalists in Egypt. In concurrence with this, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Philip Luther, has called on the Egyptian authorities to ‘immediately and unconditionally’ release Zaki and to open an investigation into his torture. Italy has called on European Union countries to put pressure on the Egyptian authorities to release Zaki, Middle East Monitor reports. On Monday 10 February, Peppe De Christofaro, Italian Under-Secretary for Education described Zaki’s detention as ‘arbitrary and unjustified’, stating that Zaki is ‘a new victim of violence and abuse from the Egyptian security forces’. The Italian official stressed in his statement that ‘everything must be done to avoid a repetition of unacceptable scenes of torture’.
De Christofaro’s statement alludes to the fact that Zakis’s case is the latest in a series of human rights abuses committed by the NSI. Indeed, according to a report by Amnesty International, over 4000 individuals have been arrested in relation to the mass protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in September 2019. These arrests were made on ‘terrorism’ charges, but security forces seem to be targeting individuals who are involved in political activism of any form. Zaki’s case is particularly concerning, as it follows the disappearance, torture and murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian activist and PhD student, in January 2016. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, Egyptian authorities have denied involvement in Regeni’s death, and have failed to investigate or prosecute anyone.
In light of this, it is imperative that the EU prevents a repetition of Regeni’s case by joining Italy in condemning the unlawful detention of Zaki, who has been arrested simply for defending human rights. Back in October 2019, the EU passed a resolution on Egypt in which the Parliament ‘strongly condemned’ the recent series of arrests in Egypt. However, a report by the Human Rights Watch reveals that the EU has thus far failed to adopt concrete measures in response to the violations of rights in Egypt. Similarly, despite unanimous criticism of Egypt during the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council last November, UN states have failed to issue a joint statement regarding Zaki’s detainment or the host of similar arrests made by Egyptian security forces. Moving forward, states need to work collectively to ensure the immediate release of Zaki and other individuals arbitrarily detained in Egypt. International bodies need to act upon their condemnation of Egypt by implementing effective measures to prevent the ongoing systematic repression of human rights groups, journalists and peaceful protesters under el-Sisi’s brutal rule.