Egyptian court sentences rights researcher Patrick Zaki to three years in prison: NGO
In a verdict that has drawn international criticism, an Egyptian court sentenced rights researcher Patrick Zaki to three years in prison for “spreading false news,” according to a human rights activist. The conviction, which cannot be appealed, was based on an article Zaki wrote about religious freedom. Zaki, who worked at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, had previously spent 22 months in pre-trial detention until December 2021. Following the court ruling in Mansoura, he was taken into custody again on Tuesday.
Zaki’s article, published in 2020, recounted his personal experiences of discrimination as a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which makes up approximately 10-15 percent of the country’s population of 105 million.
The prolonged legal proceedings surrounding Zaki’s case have triggered international condemnation, particularly in Italy, where he was studying at Bologna University. Zaki was arrested in 2020 while visiting his family and faced charges that included “spreading false news,” “harming national security,” and “incitement to overthrow the state.”
Amnesty International, in a statement released in Italian, described the court’s ruling as “a scandalous verdict.” Human rights defenders have alleged that Zaki was subjected to beatings and torture, including the use of electric shocks, during his detention.
In Italy, thousands of people signed petitions demanding Zaki’s release, and the Italian Senate granted him citizenship in 2021. Relations between Egypt and Italy were strained due to the 2016 killing of Italian PhD candidate Giulio Regeni in Egypt. Regeni’s body, showing signs of torture, was discovered days after he went missing on the fifth anniversary of the January 25 uprising. His murder raised concerns about academic freedom in Egypt.
Egypt ranks poorly in the Academic Freedom Index, with several researchers imprisoned for their work, according to the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression. The country’s human rights record has faced frequent criticism, with numerous political prisoners, including journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, and artists, held in custody, according to human rights groups.
In an attempt to give the opposition a voice, the Egyptian government initiated a “national dialogue” this year. However, human rights defenders remain skeptical, expressing concerns that the state is using the dialogue to improve its image while maintaining repressive policies. Despite the release of 1,000 political prisoners since April of the previous year, nearly 3,000 others have been detained, according to Egyptian rights monitors.
The recent verdict against Zaki has led to condemnation from rights lawyers and politicians involved in the national dialogue. Some participants have criticized the dialogue as a tool of the government to suppress dissent. In response to the sentencing, lawyer Negad El Borai announced his resignation from the dialogue’s board of trustees, stating that his presence had become “pointless.” Politician Khaled Dawood and lawyer Ahmed Ragheb also announced their withdrawal from the dialogue.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has presented himself as a proponent of religious freedom, attending Christmas mass and appointing the country’s first Coptic judge to head the constitutional court. The government’s latest “Human Rights Bulletin” highlighted the legalization of 216 Christian places of worship. However, Egypt’s largest minority, the Coptic Christians, frequently report discrimination, particularly in the obstacles they face when building or renovating churches.