On 14 February David Sassoli, the speaker of European Parliament, called for activist Patrick Zaki to be released, triggering an immediate backlash in Egypt’s parliamentary, political and judicial circles.
Zaki, a 28-year-old Egyptian masters student at Italy’s University of Bologna, was arrested when he arrived at Cairo airport from Italy on 7 February.
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal rejected Sassoli’s intervention as “unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of Egypt [and] an open assault on Egypt’s judicial authority and legal procedures.”
Sassoli’s statement, said Abdel-Aal, had killed hopes of holding a dialogue between Egypt’s House of Representatives and the European Parliament. His statement, Abdel-Aal continued, was based on unreliable information provided by organisations which lack credibility and adopt politicised positions that tarnish Egypt’s image.
According to Abdel-Aal, prosecutors began legal proceedings against Zaki in September. “He was arrested on 7 February when he arrived at Cairo airport from Italy pursuant to a judicial order, and enjoys full constitutional and legal rights,” said Abdel-Aal.
In a press conference in Strasbourg on 14 Friday, Sassoli called for Zaki’s immediate release.
“I feel the need to bring to your attention the story of Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian student who is studying for a Master’s degree at the University of Bologna and was arrested at Cairo airport on Friday morning.
“According to Amnesty International, he was interrogated, beaten and tortured for 17 hours and is still being detained. I want to remind the Egyptian authorities that EU relations with Third World countries rely on respect for human and civil rights, as confirmed by many resolutions approved by the European Parliament.
“I therefore call for the immediate release of Patrick Zaki and for his safe return to his family and his studies. I talked about this issue today with High Representative Josep Borrell who assured me that he will raise the matter during the next Foreign Affairs Council.”
In response, Egypt’s Prosecutor-General Hamada Al-Sawy issued a statement on 16 February saying that “student Patrick George Michel Zaki Suleiman faces accusations of broadcasting false news and statements which can disturb security and social peace, and using the Internet to disrupt public order and endanger the safety and security of Egyptian society.”
The statement refuted claims that Zaki was tortured for 17 hours.
“Zaki did not inform prosecutors he had been subject to any harm or abuse during his arrest or detention, and no apparent injuries were seen on his body.”
The statement urged media outlets not to base reports on unreliable sources and continued: “Patrick George Michel Zaki, a pharmacist from Mansoura city, was arrested at Cairo airport after arriving from Italy on 7 February. The arrest was ordered by the prosecution which also issued a warrant for Patrick Zaki’s home to be searched.
“Following his arrest prosecutors questioned Zaki on 8 February in his home city of Mansoura.
“When security forces searched his home in Mansoura they printed 21 documents of posts from his Facebook account inciting against state institutions and figures.”
The Interior Ministry issued its own statement underlining that Zaki is an Egyptian citizen.
“He is not Italian as many social media accounts and Western press reports claimed. Zaki is fully Egyptian, He was taken into custody for 15 days under orders from the prosecution and pending investigation into accusations levelled against him.”
As well as being a student at Bologna University, Zaki is a researcher and human rights advocate at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a leading human rights organisation.
On Saturday a Mansoura appeals court rejected an appeal filed by Zaki and upheld the prosecution’s decision that he be held in custody for 15 days.
Suleiman Wahdan, Egypt’s parliament deputy speaker, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “what is bad about the president of the European Parliament’s statement on Patrick Zaki is that it was based on information from Amnesty International, a politicised institution that has a history of issuing anti-Egypt statements that are false and inaccurate.
“Allegations that Zaki was tortured lack any evidence. Egypt is fully committed to observing human rights in dealing with detainees and opposes attempts to exploit the issue for political ends.”
Wahdan said Zaki was detained under legal and constitutional procedures and faces accusations of spreading lies and inciting people to protest.
“The prosecution decided to place him in custody pending investigation and interrogation. The speaker of the European Parliament should first have contacted the Egyptian parliament to verify Amnesty International’s information and discuss the matter instead of rushing to issue an aggressive and flawed statement.”
Alaa Abed, head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, insisted on Sunday that Sassoli’s statement distorted the circumstances of Zaki’s arrest.
“Sassoli should have sought information from reliable sources instead of basing his hasty statement on information issued by organisations hostile to Egypt. Allegations that Zaki was tortured are completely unfounded.”
EIPR claims Zaki was held incommunicado for almost 30 hours at Cairo airport.
Abdel-Aal said Zaki enjoys full constitutional and legal rights and all procedures against him are in line with international conventions on human rights.
The independent Judges’ Union said on 14 February that everyone held in custody in Egypt has access to lawyers and fair trials.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.