Jailed CEU student Ahmed Samir Santawy gets presidential pardon

Rector credits Austrian diplomats with getting student’s three-year jail sentence overturned

August 2, 2022
Ahmed Samir Santawy
Source: CEU

A master’s student has been freed by presidential pardon in Egypt, where he was serving a three-year sentence after being charged with “spreading false news” on social media.

Ahmed Samir Santawy, a student at Vienna’s Central European University (CEU) was arrested in February 2021 after travelling from the Austrian capital to visit his family in Egypt.

Shalini Randeria, the rector of CEU, which has led a long campaign for his release, said she was “overjoyed” at the news. “We breathe a sigh of relief that his ordeal has ended after 18 months in prison under horrendous conditions,” she said.

Local media reported that Mr Santawy had Covid-19 symptoms and was “suffocated” when his cell was disinfected with the door closed, with wardens refusing to open it for an hour.

Human rights groups estimate that Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has thrown about 60,000 political prisoners behind bars since he took office in 2014.

Mr Santawy was released by presidential decree on 30 July along with other prisoners. At his retrial at the start of the month a judge handed down a three-year sentence for “spreading false reports from abroad about Egypt’s internal affairs”.

The student had been questioned about his research on women’s sexual and reproductive rights when he returned to the country last February. He was charged with joining a terrorist group and spreading false news in a ruling that was subsequently overturned.

Professor Randeria thanked all those who had supported the university’s campaign for his release, crediting the Austrian president and foreign minister with providing diplomatic help “without which Ahmed would not have walked free today”.

She said Mr Santawy was jailed “for merely exercising his freedom of opinion and expression as a researcher and as a citizen” and highlighted the plight of others who remain trapped in the country, including University of Washington PhD student Waleed Salem.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in 2021, Mr Salem said he had been overly confident that the political situation in Egypt had eased and that his affiliation with the top US university would help protect him.

In a case with parallels to Mr Santawy’s, Patrick Zaki, a master’s student at the University of Bologna, was arrested in February 2020 and accused of spreading false information about Egypt’s Christian community after returning to the country from Italy.

He was released from prison in December 2021, but the charges against him have not been dropped and his trial has been twice postponed until September 2022.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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