University rector demands release of CEU student in Egypt

The rector of the Central European University (CEU) has called for the immediate release of a CEU student who was given a three-year sentence for “spreading false news” by an Egypt court on 4 July, describing the latest development as a “mockery of justice”.

Ahmed Samir Santawy, a masters student in sociology and anthropology based at CEU’s Vienna campus, was arrested on 1 February 2021 while on a trip to Egypt to visit family. According to Amnesty International, Santawy was beaten and blindfolded for five days while undergoing interrogation over his research, which is focused on women’s reproductive rights.

Five days after his arrest, the Supreme State Security prosecution reportedly ordered his detention pending investigations into “terrorism-related charges”.

Monday’s sentence comes less than five months after the original sentence in Ahmed’s case – a four-year term from an emergency court delivered on 22 June 2021 – was quashed on 16 February 2022 and a retrial announced.

“It is clear now that this was purely a strategic move to quell ongoing protests against Ahmed’s illegal detention. Today – Ahmed’s 31st birthday – should have been a day of freedom and celebration; instead, his cruel imprisonment continues,” CEU rector Shalini Randeria said of the latest developments in a press statement.

In separate statements, both Randeria and the Global Student Forum described the new sentence by the Egyptian Emergency State Security Misdemeanours Court as a “mockery of justice”.

Hunger strike

Randeria said Santawy, who went on a hunger strike for 40 days following the handing down of his first sentence, was a prisoner of conscience because he had been jailed for “exercising his freedom of opinion and expression as a researcher and as a private citizen”.

According to Amnesty International, his original conviction was based on a social media post (which he denies authoring) which criticised human rights abuses and is deemed to be critical of Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi.

Randeria called on the Egyptian government to act upon the findings of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which determined that Santawy had been detained arbitrarily for more than a year in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to release Santawy immediately.

In its own statement released on 6 July,
the Global Student Forum said the latest sentence was “another example of the systematic attacks against freedom of thought and research in Egypt” and called on all decision-makers to take action and demand Santawy’s immediate release.

“He should be able to continue his studies, to experience human rights and, moreover, be free, when the only thing he has done is take a critical approach and express his opinions.

“As the Global Student Forum, we once again emphasise the importance of academic freedom, and the observance of human rights – for scholars, but also for everyone and everywhere.”

Referring to the case of another researcher, Patrick Zaki, who was released from an Egyptian prison in December 2021 after being arrested during a visit from Italy in February 2020, the forum said it was aware that human right violations “are anything but new – hundreds of others are experiencing it similarly”.

‘Crackdown’ on academics

In February, Mohamed Abd El-Salam, executive director at Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, in a press statement published by Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, said: “Santawy’s case is a part of the crackdown on Egyptian academics, especially those who belong to the Western academic institutions.

“The Egyptian government doesn’t respect the international values of academic freedom which empower all academics and researchers to exchange ideas, information and experience with their colleagues worldwide.

“Every researcher has the right to participate in international conferences and to travel or study abroad without political restrictions or security threats,” he said, according to a report published by CEU.