Egypt pardons two prominent political prisoners


Egypt announced presidential pardons for two of its most prominent political prisoners on Wednesday, including one researcher who had been sentenced to three years behind bars just the day before.

The announcement of pardons for Patrick George Zaki, a human rights researcher who was jailed after publishing an article regarding the treatment of the Christian minority in Egypt, and Mohamed El-Baqer, a human rights lawyer, came ahead of a national holiday Thursday.

For many Egyptians, the cases against Zaki and Baqer are among those that have come to symbolize the shrinking civic space in Egypt, where the hopeful energy that fueled the Arab Spring fizzled in the aftermath of a military takeover two years later.

“Baqer and Patrick should not have spent one day in jail for their human rights work,” said Hossam Bahgat, leader of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “We welcome the news of their pardon and call for the immediate release of thousands still detained in Egypt on political grounds.”

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Zaki, a researcher for EIPR, was detained in 2020 after returning home to Egypt from Italy, where he was studying at the University of Bologna. He was held in pretrial detention for 22 months, released and then sentenced to three years Wednesday for “spreading false news.”

On Facebook, his partner posted that before his sentencing, the couple was preparing for their wedding and renovating a home together. “There’s absolutely no reason why anyone would think that Patrick is a threat,” she wrote.

Egypt has faced growing scrutiny over the past two years for its human rights record, with the United States announcing early last year it would suspend some of its massive aid package to Egypt over such concerns. Advocacy groups say tens of thousands of political prisoners have been detained during President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi’s decade in power, some on the basis of social media posts deemed critical of the government.

Over the past two years, Egypt has launched several initiatives it says are intended to improve its human rights record. Critics say they are largely for show. A national dialogue is underway that Sisi’s government has billed as a chance for voices from different political backgrounds to discuss the country’s future. Rights groups, meanwhile, decried arrests that continued the same week the dialogue was launched. After Zaki’s sentencing Tuesday, some prominent participants abandoned the dialogue in protest.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called Zaki’s pardon Wednesday “a very important act” and said he would return to Italy on Thursday. Zaki’s case had worsened already strained ties between Rome and Cairo after the 2016 killing and torture of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Egypt. Egypt has long denied its involvement in his death but Italy has charged four Egyptian officials in connection to the case.

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The U.S. State Department welcomed the announcement of the pardons, calling Zaki and Baqer’s detentions unjust on Twitter. “We urge Egypt release all unjustly detained political prisoners,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said. “Human rights progress will strengthen our bilateral relationship.”

Baqer is a human rights lawyer whose past clients included Alaa Abdel Fattah, the dual British-Egyptian citizen who has spent most of the past decade behind bars on various charges that human rights groups have decried as spurious.

An Egyptian emergency court sentenced Baqer, Abdel Fattah, and blogger Mohamed Ibrahim, also known as “Oxygen,” to four years in prison in late 2021 after they were convicted of “spreading false news undermining national security.”

Abdel Fattah was a prominent activist during Egypt’s revolution. His younger sister, Sanaa Seif, was also jailed under the current Egyptian regime and, since being released, has traveled globally advocating for her brother’s freedom.

Last year, he went on hunger strike and then began also withholding water just as COP27, the climate conference, kicked off in the coastal resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. His jailing — and Egypt’s human rights record — took a spotlight at the climate conference as visiting dignitaries pressed Sisi to release him and other prisoners.

Despite the attention, he was not released and ultimately called off the strike due to a medical crisis.


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