The trial of Patrick George Zaki, a researcher and human rights advocate detained since early last year, has begun in Egypt.
The 30-year-old, who was on leave from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) to pursue studies in Italy at the time of his arrest in February 2020, appeared before a special emergency state security court in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on Tuesday.
Held in pre-trial detention for 19 months, Zaki was charged on Monday with “spreading false news inside and outside of the country”, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail.
In the indictment, Egypt’s State Security Supreme Prosecution (SSSP) cited as grounds for arrest an article, written by the researcher two years ago, in which he gave a personal account of his hardships as a Copt in Egypt.Baoumi said that, while these courts should only try the most serious terrorist crimes, “the Egyptian authorities have been using the whole counterterrorism discourse in order to imprison and punish peaceful opponents and critics.”
The court was adjourned to September 28. It remains unclear how long it will take for the exceptional court, where rulings cannot be appealed, to reach a verdict.
Present at the hearing were representatives from the embassies of Italy, Germany, Canada and a lawyer from the European Union. Zaki was studying for a Master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the University of Bologna in Italy when he was detained on February 7, 2020, after landing in Cairo for what was supposed to be a brief visit home.
Zaki’s arrest has rattled Italy, where the case has drawn parallels with the disappearance of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, whose mutilated body was found on the outskirts of Cairo on February 3, 2016. The Italian branch of Amnesty International has been spearheading efforts to pressure the Ministry of Interior into giving Zaki Italian citizenship. Mayors in some municipalities have autonomously awarded the researcher honorary citizenship.
Zaki’s lawyers said last year the researcher has been tortured and threatened during his interrogations, an allegation rejected by Egypt’s top prosecutor.
Egypt’s national security agency maintains Zaki is responsible for circulating what it described as “inflammatory material against the state institutions and figures”.