Students Risking Their Lives for Human Rights: The Cases of Patrick Zaki, Giulio Regeni and Ahmed Samir Santawy

In a world with no freedom of speech nor any right to education, life would be a mute and mechanical sequence of actions resembling Orwell’s dystopian portrayal of society in his novel 1984. As improbable as it may seem, some recent events regarding the incarceration in Egypt of university students and researchers demonstrate how easily and frequently these rights get demolished under concealed dictatorships. 

Erasmus student Patrick Zaki of Egyptian nationality completed one year of incarceration at Tora prison in Egypt, last February 7th. He was pursuing a master’s degree in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Bologna in Italy and was part of the association EIPR, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, researching gender issues and human rights. Patrick was arrested at Cairo International Airport while returning home for a short visit to his family. He faces up to 25 years in prison for having published ten posts on a Facebook account, which his defence has reported to be ‘fake’.  Nevertheless, the Egyptian judiciary has laid heavy charges, accusing the student of disseminating false news and inciting to protest. This report by Amnesty International confirms that he was repeatedly threatened and tortured since his first 17 hours’ interrogation at the airport. Patrick is an honorary citizen of Bologna, but his family has asked the Italian government to give him Italian citizenship in order for Italy to have greater sway in demanding the liberation of the student. Sign this petition to help the cause!

As Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, asserts in this Amnesty International report: “The authorities’ arbitrary arrest and torture of Patrick Zaki is yet another example of the state’s (Egypt) deep-rooted repression of perceived opponents and human rights’ defenders, which reaches more audacious levels with each passing day”.

This is not the first time that a student has been incarcerated and tortured in Egypt for standing up for human rights. In 2016, Giulio Regeni, a PhD student of Italian nationality at the University of Cambridge was tortured and murdered for his investigations into the Egyptian government. It was in 2020, however, that the Italian magistrates charged five Egyptian security officials as suspects in the murder and torture of the student. Giulio’s parents denounced the lack of cooperation of the Egyptian government and the Italian newspaper La Repubblica criticised the inactivity of the University of Cambridge towards the investigation of the case.

The list of students who have been inhumanely arrested and tortured by Egyptian authorities goes on. The disappearance of Ahmed Samir Santawy is the latest in this upsetting pattern of arrest and intimidation of students and researchers. The Egyptian graduate student in Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University in Austria was arbitrarily detained by the Egyptian National Security Force in early February. The Association of the Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) informs that Santawy’s lawyer was not allowed to provide him with legal assistance and all communication has been cut off since he was taken in police custody. 

Amnesty International has taken action to defend Patrick Zaki from the tyranny of the Egyptian government and police. The organisation is spreading the word on their social media through online events and collaborations with important newspapers and Patrick’s university professors. Amnesty also launched this petition, which has reached more than 150000 signatures. Sign it to help Patrick return to his family, his friends and his studies!

Moreover, the University of Bologna has passed a motion regarding Patrick’s arrest in which representatives of the Italian Government and of the European Union are urged to keep monitoring Patrick’s case with close attention to safeguard the fundamental rights from violation and help him go back to Bologna as soon as possible.

These deeply concerning events are becoming increasingly frequent. For this reason, we shouldn’t stop denouncing them as the brutal suppressions of the indisputable human rights of innocent students that they are. Researching and advocating for human rights should not lead to unjust detentions and murders.