The Egyptian public prosecutor's office is pursuing a criminal investigation into an Egyptian researcher studying in Italy on charges of spreading fake news that posed a threat to security and social stability, it said on Sunday.
Patrick Zaki, a graduate student at the University of Bologna, was arrested on Feburary 7 when he arrived at Cairo airport on a visit to see his family, according to a statement the following day from the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) where he is also a researcher.
Zaki is being investigated over charges of "broadcasting false news aimed at disrupting security and social peace and for using the internet to disrupt public order and endanger society," the prosecutor's statement said.
An EIPR lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Zaki denied all charges and that his client had mostly been questioned about his human rights work when he was living in Egypt.
The lawyer, who said he spoke to Zaki after his arrest, said the postgraduate student told him he had been interrogated while blindfolded and had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks.
The prosecutor's statement said there "were no visible signs of injuries" on Zaki while he was being questioned, and that Zaki himself denied the existence of any injuries.
An interior ministry official said allegations of torture were unfounded.
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Authorities say curbing fictitious news is necessary for national security. They regularly accuse researchers and news outlets of a lack of professionalism in covering Egypt and urge reporters to use only official outlets as sources.
Rights activists say that President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi, who came to power after leading the overthrow of Islamist former President Mohammed Morsi, has presided over the worst crackdown on freedoms in Egypt's modern history.
Thousands of activists, most of them Islamists but also including dozens of liberals and leftists, have been jailed in Egypt under regulations imposed since 2013.
Sissi and his backers say such measures are needed to keep Egypt stable and to counter threats from Islamist militants.
Local and international human rights groups and the European Parliament have condemned Zaki's arrest and called for his immediate release.
"I want to remind the Egyptian authorities that EU relations with third countries rely on respect for human rights and civil rights as confirmed by many resolutions approved by the European Parliament," the president of European Parliament, David Sassoli, told a news conference on Wednesday.