Ground zero in this story is the cell in which young Patrick Zaki spent 22 months after being arrested by the police in strange circumstances on February 7, 2020 in Egypt, minutes after getting off the plane that had taken him from Italy, where he studied, to his country to visit his family. They accused him, among other things, of spreading false news after denouncing human rights violations in his country in several Facebook posts.
Spanish universities demand the release of Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian student arrested when he set foot in Cairo
If there is another neuralgic point, the counterweight to this struggle is in the Italian city of Bologna. Here the young man enjoyed the mobility program of the Master Gemma of Women’s and Gender Studies of the University of Granada, and here the machinery of a great citizen mobilization for the liberation of Zaki was promoted. His companions set out when they first heard of his disappearance, before learning of his arrest, explains his close friend Felipe Garrido. From there, two days later, the so-called Italian Foreign Ministry reached the Farnesina, and shortly after to the ears of the European Parliament. His image dressed the walls of many Italian universities, also Spanish, and was displayed in the Capitol Square in Rome.
After leaving prison, the Egyptian activist smiled in front of a Corriere della Sera journalist. And he said: “Forza Bologna”.
The struggle of the Bologna students
“We learned of his disappearance and all the alarms went off, we all suffered for his physical integrity but, also, for the psychological consequences and the hard process he faced, the accusations were tremendous,” says Garrido, who speaks in a slow tone and thoughtful, trying to convey the images of his memory.
Garrido and Zaki made friends through these streets, through the well-known Piazza Verdi, with orange arcades and always full of students; by the bar of the University where they were before going to study; in the aperitivi that they shared or while enjoying another of their great passions: soccer. “We joined very soon, we were interested in the same things, the defense of human rights, gender equality. I realized at the time of the sensitivity he had in some social issues and that he was a particularly supportive person, “he says, adding that he stood out for his way of being and expressing himself with others.
In those first conversations they had, the Egyptian activist spoke to Garrido about his country, his Achilles heel. He had in mind to return, he told her, because he believed that this was where his true action lay in the fight for human rights. “I remember one of our first exchanges, he explained to me how the ‘Arab Spring’ had been in Egypt. I knew at the moment that he was studying to be able to return to his country to work for a better world,” he adds.
Patrick Zaki had a scholarship that brought him closer to gender studies and was a convinced human rights activist, also because of his own history. This is explained by those who have been part of their environment, who have been participants in their struggle. What his friend Felipe says is confirmed by the rector of the University, Giovanni Molari: “All those who spoke to me about him throughout the process defined him in the same way: he was a dedicated person.”
As the months passed, the Bolognese students and humanitarian associations that demanded their rights forged a protest that managed to remain firm, and still does, during these almost two years. Under the slogan, #FreePatrickZaki, public demonstrations and political statements of all colors were held. The uncertain situation of the young man shocked Italy and generated interest wherever he went. “It was spontaneous from the beginning, but the fight was born within the walls of this University. The objective was to maintain constant attention on his case,” says Rector Molari.
“We have to do something”
“We have to do something,” they told themselves. It all started with several messages that his friends exchanged in those first and anguished days, through a WhatsApp group, in which they also met their Egyptian friends to coordinate, says Garrido. From there, from the street. From the street, to the institutions. It is staged by a metaphor: when Patrick Zaki’s face became a symbol in Italy, the artist Laika made graffiti that went around the world. Now it can no longer be seen on the exterior walls of the University of Bologna, since the entire facade has been painted in a uniform color, but at the entrance to the rectory, where Molari welcomes us, a large painting with his face presides over the path to the main room.
He was released from prison on December 7. “That day and the next, when liberation materialized, it was one of happiness. I remember that the phone began to ring non-stop and I knew that it was what we had been waiting for so long,” says Rector Giovanni Molari. Despite his release, the process is ongoing and the trial will resume on February 1.
In prison, Zaki was a victim of torture, according to the activist, his defense and Amnesty International (AI). During the interrogation, “they beat him in the stomach and back and tortured him by applying electric shocks to his torso,” warned the NGO, which considers it to be an illegal detention. Since he entered preventive detention on February 8, the deprivation of liberty was renewed every 45 days. The student’s conditions were, during those 22 months, increasingly worse and the young man repeatedly requested medical evaluations to demonstrate the mistreatment he received, details to elDiario.es the spokesman for Amnesty Italia, Riccardo Noury.
According to the organization, the activist slept on the floor, had no access to a mattress or decent conditions. “Patrick was and is a prisoner of conscience, detained exclusively for his work in favor of human rights and for the political opinions expressed on social media,” Noury concludes. The court of the city of Mansura accused him on February 8 of “threat to national security, call for illegal demonstration, spread of false news and propaganda of terrorism.”
Refugee in literature
His family, friends and Amnesty have also denounced the young man’s isolation conditions. An example: of the multiple letters he wrote, up to 20 to his family, only two of them arrived. In his cell, the young man read the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. Literature, he said after his release, had “saved his life.”
“I have spoken with him after his release and I was very moved because I saw that he was still as hopeful and smiling as ever,” says his friend Felipe Garrido. The rector, Molari, appeals to caution: “We do not have to think about parties yet, we have to pay attention to what remains of the process because the fight has not ended. Through public visibility and through symbols, the red ribbon that I wear on the back of my jacket is in honor of Patrick and I inherited it when I took office from the previous rector ”, says the senior position, moved, from the building of the university’s rector, which has become a symbol of this battle for the Zaki’s freedom.
Zaki’s first request after entering prison was that they send him his books so as not to lose the year or the scholarship he enjoyed in Italy. The writer and journalist Roberto Saviano, especially dedicated to this cause, always said that the University of Bologna had been “brave” in this fight. The appearances in the national and international press were continuous, in an attempt to give visibility to their situation. There was something that especially moved the society of the transalpine country, including the different names of public figures called for his release: from the historic Italian politician, Lilliana Segre, who said she felt like her grandmother, to the president of the European Parliament David Sassoli.
All the sources of this report and all the analyzes of the Italian press coincide in pointing out a name that deeply touches the collective memory in this case. That of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student murdered in Cairo in 2016. The ordeal suffered was impossible to dissociate from Zaki’s story. The Egyptian student belongs to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the same non-governmental organization that Regeni was a member of. He also allegedly suffered abuses by the Egyptian authorities in a process that remains open and that has confronted the diplomacy of both countries. Also in the case of the Egyptian activist, Italian politics, although with a little delay as reported by Amnesty, acted in the defense of the student.
The writer Elena Ferrante, after hearing Zaki’s words about how his books “saved” him during his confinement, made some highly applauded statements in the country: “A community has grown around Zaki that has realized how much it is in risk today, in all parts of the world, the most generous and sensitive youth. Together with Regeni, he has staged all the injustices and all the dangers to which our daughters and sons are exposed only by studying, thinking and trying to understand what the world has been called upon to live “.
All the sources that have participated in the reconstruction of more than 22 months of a struggle that still awaits the final decision until February 1, 2022, speak of Zaki’s tremendous sensitivity. “Whenever I met him, he would introduce me to a new friend,” says Felipe. Now Patrick has hundreds of thousands of friends around the world.