An Egyptian graduate student and human rights advocate accused of spreading “fake news” was sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt on Tuesday, a harsh conclusion to a case that had inspired a mass outpouring of support in Italy, where he studied, and in Egypt.
Just recently, the student, Patrick Zaki, had earned a master’s degree with distinction, defending his thesis to professors at the University of Bologna by videoconference because Egypt had barred him from traveling.
Mr. Zaki was convicted of disseminating fake news — a charge prosecutors routinely bring against Egyptians who speak up about political matters — for a 2019 article he published online describing his experiences as a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
As soon as the verdict was announced, Mr. Zaki, who was released from pretrial detention in December 2021, was rearrested in the courtroom, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the rights group where he had worked as a researcher.
The sentence is final: Mr. Zaki was tried in an emergency security court under Egypt’s emergency law, which forbids appeals.
But President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has overseen a wide-ranging crackdown on political opponents, activists, researchers and journalists but has boasted of improving conditions for Coptic Christians since coming to power in a military takeover a decade ago, could annul or amend Mr. Zaki’s sentence. He could also issue a pardon.
Rights groups, including Mr. Zaki’s employer and Amnesty International, condemned the verdict, with Riccardo Noury, Amnesty International’s Italy spokesman, calling the verdict “absurd and scandalous.”
Mai El-Sadany, the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, based in Washington, wrote on Twitter that the verdict was “harrowing,” adding, “Is this what it looks like to protect religious minorities, Egypt?”
The government says mass arrests have been necessary to restore security and stability after the turmoil and violence that followed Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution. In response to accusations of human rights violations, it points to its efforts to improve living standards for millions of poor Egyptians, saying human rights should be defined more broadly to include the right to a decent life.
It has also released more than 1,000 prisoners since Mr. el-Sisi promised greater political openness and dialogue with the opposition over solutions to Egypt’s myriad challenges last year, concessions made under the pressure of Egypt’s ballooning economic crisis.
But rights groups say new arrests have outpaced the releases.
Diaa Rashwan, the government-appointed coordinator of the official dialogue, said the dialogue’s board had appealed to Mr. el-Sisi on Tuesday to pardon Mr. Zaki because “he is in the prime of his life” and as a sign of the president’s commitment to the dialogue. The statement could be a prelude to a pardon, one that would help Mr. el-Sisi showcase what the government says is its seriousness about greater political openness.
Mr. Zaki was arrested in February 2020, when he landed at Cairo airport from Italy for a visit with his family. Blindfolded, he was taken away and interrogated about his work as a rights activist by national security officials, who beat him and tortured him with electric shocks, the rights group he works for said.
Then he was put in pretrial detention, an anodyne-sounding legal procedure that Egypt has used under Mr. el-Sisi to jail thousands of people for weeks, months or years at a time without revealing evidence or formal charges or putting them on trial.
Unlike most other detainees, Mr. Zaki did go on trial. But the sessions were postponed several times, and he had been out of detention for more than 18 months by Tuesday, raising hopes that he might avoid further punishment.
In Italy, where people had rallied around Mr. Zaki, organizing student protests and candlelit vigils and driving his story onto the front pages, the reaction to the verdict was swift.
“It is terrible news that comes unexpectedly, as we still have in our memory the image of Patrick getting his degree with honors,” Giovanni Molari, the rector of the University of Bologna, told the Italian newswire ANSA.
For Italians, Mr. Zaki’s struggle with Egyptian justice echoed the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student whose brutalized body was found in Cairo in 2016, 10 days after he disappeared. Though Italy has tried to prosecute four Egyptian security agents for his kidnapping, torture and murder, prosecutors have made little headway on the trial as the men have disappeared and Egypt has stopped cooperating with the Italian authorities, straining relations between the two countries.
The Italian government, which has since worked to rebuild ties with Egypt through trade and cooperation on curbing irregular migration to Europe, did not immediately comment on Mr. Zaki’s imprisonment. But opposition leaders were quick to voice their indignation, making clear that Egypt was still a live political issue in Italy.
Nicola Fratoianni, the secretary for the Italian Left party, called on the government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to freeze its relationship with Egypt until Mr. Zaki was freed and the Egyptian authorities handed over the suspects in the Regeni case.
To the government, “money is much more important than human rights,” he wrote on social media.
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Siena, Italy.