Egypt’s War Against Researchers: Giulio, Patrick, Ahmed and the Others

ELETTRA REPETTO

Image: Freedom for Ahmed Samir by Gianluca Costantini @channeldraw

On 12th March, thirty-three states signed a document denouncing the human rights abuses and violations committed by Egyptian authorities. The joint statement was delivered at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on Egypt and represents an important, albeit belated, response to the increasingly dictatorial regime in Egypt.

This is not surprising. Since the 2019 election of President Al-Sisi, military expenditure has sharply increased while human rights protection has been deteriorating. The Human Rights Council notes that arbitrary detention is systemic, a dramatic finding that couples with the widespread use of torture, as highlighted by the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) in 2017.  Egypt is party to the UN Convention against Torture, however “Perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity, although Egyptian law prohibits and creates accountability mechanisms for torture and related practices, demonstrating a serious dissonance between law and practice” (UN CAT, 2017).

This dissonance was evident in recent cases of violence, abduction and mistreatment that have seen young university researchers adding to the ranks of journalists as the targets of a regime afraid of critical thinking. Among the many students arrested throughout the years, the names of Giulio Regeni, Patrick Zaki and Ahmed Samir Santawy have become sadly familiar.

Giulio Regeni

Giulio Regeni was a researcher at the University of Cambridge, working on trade unions in Egypt. In 2016, he travelled to Cairo to conduct interviews for his research. It is there that he was abducted while on his way to meet with friends. He was then tortured by military personnel, brutally killed, and left along the side of a road, naked, to be found days later. Giulio Regeni was an Italian national. The story of his disappearance and murder made headlines in Italian newspapers for days. Despite the violence surrounding his death, Egyptian authorities tried to dismiss the case as a robbery that ended badly. They put up a wall of silence, while further omissions and obfuscations indicated that Egyptian authorities had little interest in cooperating with Italian investigators in getting to the truth of this horrendous crime. It took more than four years, after long and tiring investigations conducted by the Italian authorities, to find the suspects in four security agency officials. However, this does not yet mean justice for Giulio or his family though. While Italy is ready to proceed with charges against the four agents of kidnapping, extreme violence and homicide (in Italy the crime of torture was only introduced in 2017 as a reflection of Art. 4 of the Convention against Torture), Egypt does not seem interested in holding them accountable. This is why the Amnesty International’s  #JusticeForGiulioRegeni campaign is still active.

Patrick Zaki

Patrick Zaki is an Egyptian student at the University of Bologna where he works on LGBTQI rights. He also collaborates with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an organisation based in Cairo. While Regeni was abducted and tortured in secret, with the government pretending it had nothing to do with his disappearance, Patrick Zaki was arrested in the open. Over a year ago, on 8th February 2020, upon his arrival in Egypt to visit his family, Patrick was stopped by National Security Agency (NSA) officers. He was interrogated and questioned about his human rights work and the purpose of his residence in Italy. He has been put in pre-trial detention ever since, with continual 45 day postponements of the trial and given access to a lawyer only five months after his arrest.  “During interrogation, he was frequently threatened, beaten on his stomach and back and tortured with electric shocks” according to Amnesty International. Adding to the exhaustion of continual trial deferrals, COVID 19 poses an additional risk to Zaki, already detained in dire conditions in the prison of Tora, Cairo. Zaki risks up to 25 years of imprisonment for having allegedly written a Facebook post, which the defence deems false, but that the prosecution aims to use to accuse him of “incitement to protest” and “terrorism instigation”. To this day, he remains in pre-trial detention. More than a year after his arrest.

Ahmed Samir Santawy

At the beginning of February 2021, almost on the anniversary of the arrest of Patrick Zaki, the Egyptian authorities imprisoned Ahmed Samir Santawy, another Egyptian national, another student. Ahmed Samir Santawy is a researcher of women’s reproductive rights at Central European University, in Austria, my university. Since he started studying there in September 2019, Egyptian security officers have questioned him each time on arrival and departure from Cairo International Airport about the reasons for his trips abroad and the nature of his studies. They seemed to be interested in his research findings in relation to Islam and abortion. This last time, after being questioned at the border, his home was searched by masked men and he was finally arrested on 1st February. On February 4th, security forces took him to an unknown detention location, where he remained until his appearance before the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) on February 6th. He was later accused of being involved in a Facebook page titled, “25 January Revolutionaries”, critical of the authorities’ human rights record, which he denied. On February 23rd the SSSP charged him with “funding a terrorist organisation” in addition to the three charges of “joining a terrorist organisation”, “deliberately spreading false news and data”, and “use of a private account on the Internet to spread false news or data”. These charges have not been substantiated with any evidence, yet Ahmed remains in prison to this day, where he has also been beaten and put in confinement for over a month. Now, although his conditions have improved, we have no information as to when he is going to be released.

It is time to put an end to violations and impunity

Ahmed and Patrick share a similar fate; they are both prisoners of conscience, detained for their work as researchers in fields the current Egyptian government does not support. The international community needs to act promptly to avoid them meeting the same fate as Giulio Regeni.

By kidnapping researchers, keeping them in jail without granting them a fair trial, using violence and torture to push them to confess crimes they have not committed, Egypt is acting against domestic and international law and their human rights commitments. The typical and too often used accusation that authorities use to neutralise their critics is that they are, indeed, terrorists. The war on terror is an excuse still used by too many countries to justify restrictions on freedom of expression, arbitrary imprisonments, torture and executions.

By acting in this way, Egypt is in violation of its own Constitution, which asserts that anyone arrested has the right to be promptly (within a day) notified of the reasons of one’s imprisonment and to be held in official locations only. It is evident that this was not the case nor for either Ahmed or Zaki.

Under international human rights law, Egypt is contravening the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). Egypt is violating human rights protected under articles of the ICCPR, such as: the right to life (art. 6); freedom from torture or ill-treated (art. 7); liberty and security from arbitrary detention (art. 9); dignified treatment while in prison (art. 10); the right to be tried without undue delay (art. 14); the right to hold opinions (art.18); free speech (art. 19); the right to assembly (art. 21); and proper remedy in cases of violations (art. 2.3). By using torture in a widespread manner, Egypt does not respect its duties under UNCAT, in particular articles. 2, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. Were Egypt to be a signatory, it would also be in violation of the International Convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance.

By accusing dissenters of being terrorists, charging researchers of being threats to the country with no trial to establish evidence, the authorities are denying the right to due process, they also deprive the state of its critical minds, so essential for its future.

Sign the Amnesty Petitions to help free Ahmed and Patrick now!

Writing this article on Rights!, a platform promoting human rights, I want to join others in asking for Ahmed and Zaki’s immediate release and ask our readers to sign the petitions to ask Al-Sisi to free them as soon as possible.

Please SIGN AND SHARE these petitions as widely as possible.

Amnesty Petition for Ahmed Samir Santawy

Amnesty Petition for Patrick Zaki

If you are a researcher, a student, a professor, consider signing this petition:

ScholarsAtRisk Petition for Ahmed Samir Santawy

I also join those asking #TruthForGiulioRegeni, calling for the Egyptian government to collaborate with the Italian authorities to finally do justice to Giulio and his family.

This article concerns three researchers, one of them studying where I myself do research, but sadly many more journalists, researchers and activists are being charged with spreading false news, inciting terrorist crimes and misusing social media. A somewhat comprehensive list can be found here.

Elettra Repetto is a Doctoral Candidate at Central European University. She is an editorial board member of Rights! and a political theorist who writes about transnational civil disobedience, with additional research interests in migration and climate change. She is the former coordinator of the Migration Research Group at CEU and has been a Fellow at Telluride House, Cornell University (NY). Elettra has collaborated with NGOs working with asylum seekers and refugees in Italy and Greece and gained considerable experience as an environmental activist. Follow her @_ElektraR

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