27th Feb 2024

New Cairo activist case prompts wave of Italy demos

  • 'He is accused of incitement to violence and terrorist crimes, disseminating false news, and inciting to protest through his Facebook profile. The classic set of accusations used in Egypt against dissidents'

"I miss Patrick so much. On his return from Egypt, we had plans for a trip to Turin with other friends."

Giada Rossi is a masters student in gender and women's studies at the University of Bologna, in central Italy. It was thanks to that masters that she met Patrick Zaki, the Egyptian student and activist who has been held in pre-trial detention in Tora prison in Cairo since 5 March after what Amnesty International labeled as an "arbitrary arrest".

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  • Protests in Turin, demanding the truth about the killing of Regeni in 2016 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Zaki, 29, was detained on 7 February, the first time he returned to Egypt since he moved to Italy in the summer of 2019. "He was so happy to see his relatives again, it was them who gave him the ticket," Rossi tells EUobserver.

In Egypt, Zaki used to work as a researcher at the independent organisation Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

After his departure for Italy, Egyptian authorities issued a warrant against him, presumably without ever notifying him. As soon as he returned to Egypt, he was arrested on the basis of that warrant.

"He is accused of incitement to violence and terrorist crimes, disseminating false news, and inciting to protest through his Facebook profile. The classic set of accusations used in Egypt against dissidents," explains Riccardo Noury, the spokesperson for Amnesty International Italy.

Zaki's friends in Italy immediately mobilised for him along with other students, human rights organisations, and several Italian universities.

"We have organised many mobilisations and flashmobs since the news of his arrest. Keeping the focus on him is crucial: Patrick was imprisoned for his ideas. We are very worried for him and unfortunately this is the only way that we can help him" Riccardo Ridolfi, 26, a PhD student in physics at University of Bologna and local coordinator of the national student association ADI, tells EUobserver.

Virtually the whole of Bologna, a wealthy city in central Italy known for its manufacturing industries and its tagliatelle al ragù, has mobilised to demand Zaki's release.

"One of the oldest universities in the West was born in this city. Whoever studies with us is not a guest but a citizen," said mayor Virginio Merola during a march for Zaki in February, attended by thousands of people.

The last event was organised two weeks ago [12 June] in Bologna, when a giant poster portraying Zaki's face was laid out in the main square of Bologna, surrounded by its majestic medieval buildings.

But protests against Zaki's detention were also held in many other Italian cities, including Milan, Rome, Venice, Genoa, and Sanremo.

The Regeni killing

The mobilisation for Zaki's release merged with that to obtain the truth about Giulio Regeni, the 28-year-old Italian researcher who was tortured and killed in Egypt in 2016.

Regeni's body was found in a ditch beside the Cairo-Alexandria highway in the suburbs outside the Egyptian capital.

His corps showed clear signs of torture. Paola Deffendi, Regeni's mother, stated: "the only thing I recognised in my son's face was the tip of his nose".

In December 2018, Rome prosecutors listed five officials of the National Security Agency (NSA) as suspects for the alleged abduction of Regeni. The NSA is Egypt's leading domestic security agency - the same one whose officials detained Zaki at Cairo airport, according to his lawyers.

International human rights organisations have expressed serious concern for years about what they call "an unprecedented repression" in Egypt.

Under the rule of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in office since June 2014, NGOs have reported thousands of arbitrary arrests, torture, and other ill-treatment of people held in custody, mass enforced disappearances and even extrajudicial executions.

The death of Sarah Hegazi, the Egyptian LGBTI activist who took her own life on June 14 in Canada, where she had emigrated, has revived concern over Zaki among Italian civil society.

Hegazi, 30, was arrested in 2017 for waving the rainbow flag during a concert in Cairo. According to her goodbye letter, her suicide was linked to the abuse she suffered in prison.

"Sarah's story is devastating," comments Noury. "And it is yet another confirmation that Egypt is a state based on repression and impunity and a very high degree of compliance from the outside".


While Egypt and Italy have historically been important partners for each other, the killing of Regeni has inflicted a severe blow on relations between the two countries.

"Currently there is a polarisation of Italian public opinion and probably also of our politicians. On one side there are those who believe that relations between the two countries should be encouraged because Egypt is such an important partner; on the other, there are those who would like Italy to end all ties with Cairo," explains Silvia Colombo, head of Italy's foreign policy programme at Rome-based think tank IAI.

Divisions have sharpened during the last two weeks, following the news of the export of two military ships built in Italian shipyards to Egypt.

"The Italian state has betrayed us", Regeni's parents said. Disagreements have also arisen between the various political parties.

In Italy, there are those who are calling for drastic steps towards Cairo. But according to Colombo, measures - such as the suspension of relations with Egypt - would be far from positive.

On the contrary, "the channels opened with Egypt at the business level by large Italian companies like Eni [an energy company] and Leonardo [a multinational specialising in defence and security] should be used to pressure on political issues.

"After all, it is also in Egypt's interest to close the litigation over the death of Giulio Regeni".

Expectations are now high for 1 July , when Italian and Egyptian prosecutors are to meet about the investigation on the Italian researcher's killing.

In a letter sent to his Egyptian counterpart, Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio asked last Thursday (18 June) for "a quick response to the letter, especially regarding the notification of the legal domicile of the suspects", which is essential to start the trial.

Rome-based prosecutors have been requesting it since April 2019, so far no avail.

The lack of concrete cooperation from the Egyptian authorities in the investigation is the reason why both the campaign for the truth about Regeni, and the researcher's parents, have been demanding for months that the government withdraw the Italian ambassador from Cairo.

But according to Giuseppe Nesi, professor of international law at the University of Trento, "while withdrawing one's ambassador is a very serious act in diplomatic relations, it does not always help to achieve the objectives".

For what concerns the case of Zaki, Egyptian authorities are well aware of the attention that the international community and Italy in particular, are paying to his detention, according to Nesi.

"Unlike many other activists held in Egyptian prisons, Zaki studied in Italy, and thanks to this he has built relationships that emerged when he was arrested".

The University of Bologna, for example, is very vocal.

"The continuing extension of the pre-trial detention that has forced Patrick in prison for almost five months is a truly shameful situation," the rector of the University, Francesco Ubertini, told EUobserver.

"I also wrote to the Egyptian ambassador in Italy, but to no avail. I call on university institutions around the world to join our call for the Egyptian authorities respect fundamental human rights and release Patrick Zaki".

There is concern about Zaki's health.

"He suffers from bronchial asthma, and since Covid-19 has arrived in Tora prison, even though the Egyptian authorities continue to deny it, we demand an immediate humanitarian measure, his release for health reasons," said Noury.

"It was his birthday last Tuesday. We were supposed to celebrate it together and it would have been great. Patrick is so smiling, curious, full of energy, and a brilliant student," says his friend, Rossi, sadly.

"Carrying out the mobilisations during the lockdown was difficult but we looked for other ways to make our voice heard. We'll continue the campaign for his release. We'll never give up".

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.


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