Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has pardoned detained human rights researcher Patrick Zaki and lawyer Mohamed el-Baqer, state-run media has reported.
The pardon came on Wednesday, a day after Zaki had been sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of spreading “false news”.
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Zaki, 32, was jailed over an article recounting the discrimination he and other members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority say they have suffered.
The government-run al-Ahram newspaper said el-Sisi also granted a presidential pardon to el-Baqer, who is the lawyer for Alaa Abd el-Fattah – Egypt’s best-known political prisoner. Al-Baqer was detained in 2019, and in 2021 he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of disseminating false news, misuse of social media, and joining a “terrorist” group.
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. Bahgat is the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which represented Zaki in court.
Baqer and Patrick should not have spent one day in jail for their human rights work. We welcome the news of their pardon and call for the immediate release of thousands still detained in Egypt on political grounds
— hossam bahgat حسام بهجت (@hossambahgat) July 19, 2023
Word of the pardon came after the US Department of State had said on Twitter it was “concerned” by Zaki’s sentence and urged the “immediate release of him and others unjustly detained”.
Zaki was a graduate student at the University of Bologna when he was arrested by Egyptian authorities in February 2020 as he arrived at the Cairo International Airport during a visit home to see his family.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that Zaki, who also holds Italian citizenship, will return to Italy on Thursday.
“Tomorrow Patrick Zaki will return to Italy and I wish him a life of serenity and success,” Meloni said in a video message on Wednesday as she thanked el-Sisi “for this very important act”.
Thousands of political prisoners
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”.
Cairo has come under frequent criticism for its human rights record, with tens of thousands of political prisoners – including journalists, lawyers, trade unionists and artists – behind bars, according to rights groups.
Egypt has pardoned dozens of detainees in the past several months, after its human rights record came under international scrutiny when it hosted the United Nations climate change summit in November.
Thousands of political prisoners are estimated by rights groups to remain in custody in Egypt, many without trial.
The government launched a “national dialogue” this year, hoping to bring in an opposition that has been decimated throughout a decade of repression since el-Sisi deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the late Mohamed Morsi, after popular protests.
Egypt is a key ally of the United States and one of its top recipients of military aid.
Though voices within the US Congress had called for broader aid cuts to Egypt over its rights record, the administration of President Joe Biden withheld only $130m in 2021.
In January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on el-Sisi to “free all political prisoners” while welcoming the “important strides” the country had made.