CAIRO -- An Egyptian court Tuesday ordered the release pending trial of a rights activist who has been imprisoned for nearly two years in a case that has drawn significant international attention, a rights group said.
The court in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura postponed the trial of Patrick George Zaki until Feb. 1 to give prosecutors and defense lawyers time to prepare their arguments, said the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which represents Zaki.
The jailing and silencing of critics has brought international condemnation and is a key point of friction between Egypt and the Biden administration.
Zaki, a 29-year-old human rights advocate and student at the University of Bologna in Italy was arrested in February 2020 shortly after he landed in Cairo for a short trip home from Italy. He has since been detained and faces charges of spreading false news about Egypt domestically and abroad.
The charges stem from a 2019 opinion article Zaki wrote on discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt, according to the EIPR. Zaki worked with the group as a gender rights researcher.
Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed “satisfaction” over the court decision to release Zaki and vowed to continue following the case.
In a statement issued by Draghi’s office, the premier said the case “has been and will be followed with the maximum attention by the Italian government.”
Zaki’s arrest and trial became front page news in Italy and sparked a wave of student protests there. For many Italians, his detention was reminiscent of the death of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who was kidnapped in Cairo, tortured and killed in 2016.
In October, Italy formally opened the trial in absentia of four high-ranking members of Egypt’s security forces for their alleged roles in Regeni’s slaying. A Rome judge, however, halted the trial, saying there was no certainty the Egyptian security forces members had been officially informed that they were charged.
Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt has seen the heaviest crackdown on dissent in decades. Officials have targeted not only Islamist political opponents but also pro-democracy activists, journalists and online critics. Lengthy pretrial detentions have become a common practice to keep the government’s critics behind bars for as long as possible.
The crackdown has alarmed the U.S. and European governments. The Biden administration has said that human rights will be a priority in its relationship with Egypt, but has continued to supply the country with military aid and hardware. In September, the U.S. released nearly $200 million in military aid to Egypt but withheld another $130 million due to concerns over rights violations. American officials have long said that maintaining a relationship with Egypt is key to regional security.