The Patrick Zaki Affair: A European Case

The Patrick Zaki Affair (1)

, by Ignazio Pardo, translated by Mark Hughes

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

The Patrick Zaki Affair: A European Case

We have reconstructed the painful story of Patrick from his arrest up to today, analysing the controversies and moments of importance regarding his arrest and the more general situation of the Egyptian legal system. This violation which has generated strong responses from civil societies across Europe was discussed with Domitilla Brandoni, representative of the doctoral students on the Student Council and Governing Council at the University of Bologna, and Giada Rossi, Patrick’s friend and classmate. This case is an opportunity for the European Union as a whole to redeem itself after the political and diplomatic failings of the last few years and to act united in the protection of the fundamental rights of one of their own students.

On 7th February 2020 Patrick George Zaki, an Egyptian student at the University of Bologna who was returning to Egypt to visit his family, was arrested at Cairo airport on an arrest warrant issued in September 2019 which he was not aware of. This was the beginning of the sequence of events which provoked a huge stir and generated numerous protests demanding the release of the young man and requesting that the Egyptian state respect democratic values and fundamental human rights. The case shook institutions and in particular civil societies throughout Europe, as it affected a young man who, although a non-EU citizen, lives and studies in Europe. His arrest epitomises the situation for thousands of other prisoners and Egyptian citizens who, since the arrival of the president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2013, have seen their freedom to express their opinions and their individual liberties progressively limited by a repressive and wide-reaching regime.

The Patrick Zaki affair. The arrest and imprisonment

Patrick Zaki, 28 years old, moved to Europe to study the Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, supported by the European Commission which involves seven universities in six European member states including the University of Bologna. During the night of the 6th to 7th February Patrick was arrested at Cairo airport by the Egyptian National Security Agency which, after having made him disappear for more than a day, transferred him to the prison in Mansoura, the city of birth of the young man, where his preventive detention began.

The arrest came on a warrant dating back to September 2019, filed following posts published by the young man on a Facebook page which the defence declared to be fake. The five charges against Zaki are the spreading of fake news which undermine social order; incitement to illegal protests; subversion against the Egyptian authorities; threatening national security; and promoting terrorist propaganda. For this type of charge, if the trial were to be confirmed, the student would risk a sentence of between 13 and 25 years of imprisonment. Giada Rossi, a friend and classmate of Patrick, tells us how: “whilst being aware of the situation in his country, Patrick wasn’t expecting to be prosecuted, he wasn’t worried”. Moreover, Patrick wouldn’t have returned to Egypt if he could have imagined what would happen. His treatment seems to be primarily due to his collaboration with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIFR), an NGO which is in charge of the defence of fundamental rights in Egypt. His lawyers have confirmed that during his first interrogation the police officers insisted on asking him what links he had with the family of Giulio Regeni who Patrick had never had any contact with.

Unfortunately, as is usually the case, and as international observers and human rights defence activists feared from the beginning, the lack of decisions and real decisive and investigatory progress made in the development of the hearing have meant that the pre-trial detention period was repeatedly renewed every 15 days until the beginning of March. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 emergency, Patrick found himself faced with the impossibility of understanding and predicting his fate because of the halt on all legal activity in the country. While waiting for the next hearing, confirmed for 21st April which hopefully will not be pushed back again or cancelled, it is important to keep a high profile of the case.

From the beginning, the trial seems to have presented a lot of the worrying signs which characterise the treatment reserved to political prisoners under the Al-Sisi regime. After his arrest, Patrick disappeared for more than 24 hours and his arrest was only formalised on 8th February. According to the lawyers the young man was initially locked up in the rooms of the National Security Agency within the airport, where he was subject to torture for over 17 hours, subject to beatings and electroshocks. Samuel Thabet, one of Patrick’s two lawyers, declared that the signs on his face of beatings were visible to the naked eye.

Once he was transferred to the prison of Mansoura, his imprisonment began without any respect for the minimum standards of fundamental rights set out by international law. It has been reported said that Patrick was interrogated after having been locked up in a cell with some 35 other prisoners and only one lavatory. Following the hearing on 22nd February, during which Patrick’s preventive detention was confirmed for the second time, Zaki was transferred without advanced warning to the Tora detention centre, in the capital, where he is still to this day. The Tora Prison is sadly already known for being where a good part of the over 60 thousand political prisoners who oppose the regime of the president Al-Sisi can be found. Luckily, after some worrying moments, Patrick’s lawyers communicated that the boy is not in the wing called “Scorpion” which is the highest security wing.

No-one has however had any way to contact him or gain information on his health. Therefore, levels of concern remain high due to the lack of updates regarding his health conditions, since the student suffers with respiratory problems and it is believed that in the Tora centre the precautionary anti-infection measures are not respected in the slightest. As Giada Rossi explains:

“Even we haven’t received any news since 9th March. He hasn’t been able to see his lawyers, no contact with his parents and all hearings have been postponed. The situation couldn’t be better for Egypt.”

Therefore, for the moment Patrick’s conditions and the fate seem destined to remain a matter of uncertainty, as the current halt provoked by the Coronavirus pandemic ironically favours the arbitrary and controversial practice of preventive detention in Egypt.

The trial seems to be based on ambiguous presuppositions which, according to the Patrick’s supporters. were fabricated by the self-same Egyptian authorities. Effectively, a lot of elements allow strong contradictions to appear within the prosecution. Firstly, the warrant that incriminated the student was said to have been issued in September of 2019, but Patrick was never notified. Regarding the warrant, Zaki maintains that the Facebook page on which the incriminatory evidence is based is fake and doesn’t belong to him. Secondly, the report on the arrest may have been falsified since it states that Patrick was arrested on 8th February at a checkpoint in Mansoura, his home city, however, it has been ascertained that the National Security actually arrested him as soon as he arrived at Cairo airport the night before. This incongruence of around 30 hours seems to cover the period during which Patrick disappeared without anyone knowing and during which he claims to have been interrogated and tortured. Furthermore, this type of imprisonment, however widely used by the Egyptian Superior Procurer of Justice, should only be applied, according to the Egyptian penal code, in case of minutely described and founded motives, criminals caught in the act or if there is the possibility that evidence could be contaminated. Patrick’s situation doesn’t seem to fit any of these cases, since as Giada Rossi reminds us: “the authorities haven’t got anything to hold against him other than the alleged Facebook page”.

The Egyptian media, for their part, launched a scathing criticism of Patrick Zaki, describing him as a terrorist and a subversive and degenerate homosexual - which it is worth noting is a crime in Egypt - with the intention of isolating him. A lot of national newspapers have tried to distract the attention from Europe on the case, stating that it is decidedly a matter for the Egyptian authorities as it regards one of their own citizens. Giada wants to clarify that: “Patrick didn’t partake in activism in Bologna. He is certainly a very aware and educated person. He always says he wants to interact with people, and work both with and for human rights and the rights of minorities. The portrait painted by the Egyptian media couldn’t be further from the truth. Even regarding politics, he has never assumed subversive or violent positions. He is a truly good person.”

In Italy, as a result of the kidnapping and killing of Giulio Regeni - which happened more than 4 years ago now and is still unresolved- we’ve already had a chance to see the strong authoritarian grip used by the Al-Sisi regime. Today the topic, still hot in Italy, is again spreading throughout the European Union, where Patrick studied, lived and had cultivated strong friendships: his rights which were brutally violated burned not only on the conscience of Italian society but, this time, on that of many other young Europeans who have been suddenly catapulted into the day-to-day reality of the Al-Sisi regime, whose indifference towards fundamental human rights is sadly known to its citizens and those involved in Egyptian affairs. This is therefore an opportunity for the EU to demand action and come together to act concretely in defence of its founding rights so as to stop the widely abused practice of violation and non-democratic methods in Egypt.

Bologna, Patrick’s alma mater, reacted immediately to his disappearance. We discussed the university’s position from various angles with Domitilla Brandoni, a PhD mathematics student at Bologna University and representative of the doctorate students in the Student Council and the Governing Council. Domitilla recalls that only 10 days after the arrest, the university organised a protest in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna. Both official institutions, including the rector himself, took part alongside the mayor of the city and lots of other varied groups of Bolognese society. The far-reaching nature of the protest and widespread participation were undoubtedly strong signals but immediately after, as confirmed also by Giada Rossi, the collective action inevitably started to be weakened by the spreading of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Domitilla highlights, in these cases the most important action that the public can carry forward is keeping a high profile of the case in the media and in the institutions, something which the health crisis has rendered more or less impossible. Therefore despite in the first instances when the University of Bologna strongly responded to the Patrick’s situation, immediately writing a communiqué to other universities asking for the immediate release of its student, Domitilla reports that the continuation of the action failed to meet expectations, either due to the Covid-19 halt or due to a lack of long-term collective vision regarding the case. As a representative for ADI (Association of PhD students in Italy) in Bologna, Domitilla at the end of March took to the Governing Council a request to ask the university to carry out a stronger action towards the liberation of Patrick. In fact, Patrick’s home university has the power to suspend agreements with universities, businesses, and public and private bodies which operate on Egyptian soil, agreements which have been maintained up to now as the academic bodies considered them a “bridge” with the country, having nothing to do with the arrest and detention of Patrick.

However, in the request, Domitilla considers that this cannot be held to be true: in Egypt, rectors are nominated directly by the government, and students are arrested if they express opinions different to those of the regime. In Egypt, universities are not a bastion against authoritarianism: researchers and professors are not free to think and write, and therefore, any supposed “cultural bridge” with Italian universities is ephemeral. For these reasons the ADI in Bologna asked the University of Bologna to pave the way for suspending agreements with its Egyptian partners, considered the sole possible impactful action, along with sharing such an initiative in other Italian and European universities.

The response to the request has not yet been delivered, but Domitilla highlights that this is the time to stress the health emergency to request with greater determination the release of Zaki. Several Arabic countries and some from the Maghreb, even those governed by strongly authoritarian regimes, have ordered the freeing of thousands of prisoners with minor crimes from overcrowded prisons so as to contain the spreading of the epidemic. Egypt is the only country in North Africa which hasn’t put any measures in place, leaving the prisons packed and risking the springing up of breeding grounds at the heart of the detention centres by not freeing opposers and dissidents. Slowing down the action during this period is extremely risky, according to Domitilla, and the initial push at university level must come from the University of Bologna.

Giada also offers further examples of a will to be heard and how they’re trying to do so on several fronts: “With friends and acquaintances of Patrick we are looking to mobilise ourselves and move together. Some of us live in Spain, others in Germany, Egypt or in other countries. We are trying, along with professional lawyers, above all to get the situation known- for example through the petition launched from the outset on change.org and the protest in Piazza Maggiore -, starting with Bologna and then looking to involve other cities and universities in Italy and abroad. An initiative called “Voices for Patrick”, has been recently launched by classmates from the University of Granada - the coordinator of our Masters - in which artists will recount through works and exhibitions Patrick’s situation”. And she adds: “Especially during this period of quarantine in which the virus dominates, we have to find new ways to partake in activism, to mobilise and to communicate.”

Patrick Zaki’s trial is far from an exception for the Egyptian population, but it is for European society. As Riccardo Noury, the spokesperson for Amnesty International Italia, highlights: “the objective of prolonged preventive detention is detaining them until they are forgotten.” This mustn’t happen, and European authorities and societies are once again directly responsible for what will happen.

The parallel judicial system. Defence of national security and elimination of disagreement

To fully understand the repressive and totalitarian organisation of Al-Sisi’s authoritarianism, it is useful to illustrate the nature and functioning of the legal organs which deal with national security. This system has been minutely analysed by Amnesty International in the Permanent State of Exception report in which the system is defined as a sort of parallel judicial system which operates to eliminate all forms of disagreement through disappearances, convictions and judicial obscurity.

At the top is the so-called Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), or rather the judicial authority which has been assigned the investigation of cases regarding national security. A special police force, called the Agency of National Security, and the antiterrorism courts work alongside the prosecutor’s office. This triad, which works independently from other judicial institutions, was enormously strengthened as soon as Al-Sisi came to power in 2013. In particular, the triad was strengthened with the promulgation of the antiterrorism law in 2015, with the declaration of a state of emergency in 2017 - which has been continuously renewed since then - and with the September 2019 referendum, all of which attribute wider discretion and greater capacity to the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, closely connected with the Egyptian President.

Preventive detention is a widely-used practice in Egypt and, as demonstrated by Amnesty and many other humanitarian bodies, it is heavily abused and justified by accusations of terrorism which are often nothing more than ways to disrupt protestors, students and researchers who are not aligned with the President’s political agenda. This type of custody, under the SSSP and applicable for a period ranging from 15 days to a maximum of 150, can be further prolonged with the approval of the antiterrorism court responsible for the case. The possibility of interrupting this pattern is uncertain, since the examination of eventual appeals by the defendant is up to the same judges of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office. The experts at Amnesty have revealed that, for the cases they studied, the average duration of preventive detention is 345 days, with a striking maximum length of 1263 days. For most cases the prisoners were not informed of their personal rights and they were not allowed to speak with their own legal representatives within the time frame established by Egyptian legislation.

The blatant negation of the right to a fair and just trial is coupled with actual violations of human rights regarding imprisonment and investigation and interrogation methods. Amnesty and numerous other bodies specialised in the defence of fundamental rights have often denounced the systemic use of torture and methods of coercion and extortion in Egyptian prisons, in particular by the National Security Agency. Despite the countless reports from individuals and organisations, no enquiry has even been conducted by the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office with regards to police forces. Confronted with this type of structure and such evidence, it is not difficult to see how the self-referentiality and the discretionary power of these bodies become channelled in a reactionary and repressive sense so as to eliminate all forms of disagreement with the regime, which according to some studies may be responsible for the disappearance of around 800 people in 2019 alone.

This type of practice affects mostly young militants from organisations and movements still today declared terrorist groups by the government, but also affects, as the stories of Patrick Zaki and Giulio Regeni bear witness, individuals not directly involved in political affairs, so as to create a climate of terror which guarantees monolithic and silent support of the regime. Not even minors are spared from this cruel reasoning. Human Rights Watch has testified and documented cases of as many as 20 minors aged between 12 and 17 years old imprisoned and tortured, almost all at the hands of the National Security Agency.

In light of this portrayal it is not surprising the fact that today Patrick is in prison. At the same time, the worry for his fate and the conditions grows greatly and needs to lead to concrete acts other than simple declarations of solidarity and formal position taking. Patrick’s situation is European, not national, it concerns us all as European citizens and our response must be substantial and cohesive.

This article was originally published on GFE Bologna’s blog, Il Bradipo Federalista.

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