CAIRO: Egypt’s president pardoned two prominent rights activists, including one with ties to Italy who was sentenced this week, the country’s state-run news agency reported.
Among an unspecified number of people pardoned Wednesday by President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was rights activist Patrick George Zaki, who was a post-graduate student in Italy and who was sentenced to three years in prison on Tuesday over an opinion article he wrote in 2019, the MENA news agency said.
Zaki’s case has echoed in Italy, where many were reminded after the sentencing this week of the tragic fate of Italian student Giulio Regeni who was abducted and killed in Cairo in 2016. The Italian government had repeatedly called for Zaki’s release since his arrest in 2020.
Also pardoned was Mohammed el-Baker, a rights lawyer, who was arrested in September 2019, the agency reported. El-Baker was sentenced to four years in prison late in 2021 over charges of disseminating false news, misuse of social media and joining a terrorist group. El-Baker was arrested when he attended the questioning by prosecutors of another jailed activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah.
The report said the two were among a group pardoned on Wednesday but did not elaborate who else was included. Prisoners who are pardoned in Egypt usually walk free within days.
“We welcome the news of their pardon and call for the immediate release of thousands still detained in Egypt on political grounds,” prominent rights activist Hossam Bahgat wrote on Twitter.
He added that both activists “should not have spent one day in jail for their human rights work.” Bahgat is the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which represented Zaki in court.
In Italy, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani welcomed el-Sissi’s decision to pardon Zaki. “Thanks to the government’s foreign policy we have given a decisive contribution to freeing this young student. Concrete results through work and international credibility,” he tweeted.
Jubilation also resounded from the ranks of Italian opposition lawmakers following the pardon news.
“Victory for Patrick Zaki. Pardon granted,’’ tweeted Federica Onori, the foreign affairs commission whip for the populist 5-Star Movement. “We never quit fighting. We never quit believing. We await you soon back home in Italy.”
When Zaki was arrested in 2020, the 5-Stars led the government and Meloni’s far-right party was in the opposition.
Speaking to the Italian state TV in a square outside Rome’s ancient Pantheon, an Amnesty International official in Italy, Riccardo Noury, expressed satisfaction that the “grave case (of Zaki) is resolved, but it doesn’t resolve the theme of human rights in Egypt.”
Zaki, who is Christian, was arrested in February 2020 shortly after landing in Cairo for a short trip home from Italy where he was studying at the University of Bologna. He was released in December 2021 after spending 22 months in pretrial detention but had to remain in Egypt and was not allowed to travel abroad, pending trial.
He earned a master’s degree with distinction earlier this month without being able to travel to Italy because he was barred from travel. He defended his thesis by videoconference.
An Egyptian court sentenced him this week to three years in person over his conviction of “disseminating false news” related to an article of his about alleged discrimination against the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt.
Amnesty International swiftly condemned Egyptian authorities and said that the image of Zaki being dragged out of a courtroom and taken to prison on Tuesday was “terrifying.”
Egypt has pardoned dozens of detainees in the past several months, after its human rights record came under international scrutiny when it hosted the U.N. climate change summit in November.
The government has been relentlessly silencing dissenters and clamping down on independent organizations for years with arrests, detentions, prison sentences and other restrictions. Thousands of political prisoners are estimated by rights groups to remain in custody in Egypt, many without trial.
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