(New York, NY) — PEN America today joined with free expression allies globally demanding the release of Egyptian student Ahmed Samir Santawy, who is currently being held in solitary confinement in Egypt facing wholly unfounded charges. PEN America says his ongoing harassment and detention is unjust and reflects Egyptian authorities’ ongoing assault on free expression and academic freedom.

Santawy, a 29-year old masters student in sociology and social anthropology at Vienna’s Central European University (CEU), was initially interrogated on December 15, 2020, when he first arrived in Egypt at Sharm El Sheikh International Airport. On January 23, heavily armed officials from the Central Security Forces entered Santawy’s home in Cairo without a search warrant and seized home surveillance footage. He appeared at the Fifth Settlement Section Police Headquarters on January 30 in compliance with their summons, and was asked to return again on February 1, when he was ultimately detained by the Egyptian Security Forces.

“The outrageous arrest and harassment of this scholar illustrates Egypt’s flagrant and persistent hostility to academic freedom and freedom of expression,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “Santawy’s detention sheds light on a systematic campaign of intimidation by Egyptian authorities against intellectuals and students, including Ismail Alexandrani, Patrick George Zaki, Walid al-Shobaky, and Giulio Regeni. It is unacceptable for researchers to face judicial and extrajudicial harassment and in Regeni’s case, torture and murder, for pursuing academic inquiry and independent scholarship. We call on the Egyptian authorities to release Ahmed Samir Santawy and all other unjustly detained scholars immediately and unconditionally.”

In an attempt to force a confession, National Security Police reportedly physically assaulted Santawy during his interrogations. Five days later, the Supreme State Security Prosecutor (SSSP) charged him with joining a terrorist organization and deliberately spreading false news and data online. The only evidence presented against Santawy were screenshots from a Facebook account that the prosecutor claims belongs to Santawy. His situation worsened when he was transferred to Liman Torah Prison on February 6, where he is reportedly being held in solitary confinement. On February 23, the SSSP renewed Ahmed’s detention and formally charged him with “funding a terrorist organization,” without allowing him access to legal counsel. 

Santawy’s academic work explores the intersection of human rights, gender, and neo-colonialism in Egypt, with a concentration on anti-abortion laws and the importance of women’s rights to access safe and legal health care.

In recent years, Egyptian authorities have consistently targeted those who express divergent views from those condoned by the government. In September 2020, Egyptian authorities detained City University of New York student and filmmaker Mustafa Ali Hassanien, who was arrested and detained on several similar charges, including “spreading false news” and “belonging to a terrorist organization”—vaguely-defined charges that are typically among those levied against critical voices. Academics, human rights defenders, journalists and even social media influencers have been swept up in broad crackdowns and are frequently held in pre-trial detention, a status which is regularly exploited to allow authorities to hold detainees for years in jail without ever charging them or bringing them to trial. In PEN America’s inaugural Freedom to Write Index, Egypt ranked fifth worldwide in terms of imprisoned writers and public intellectuals, with 11 jailed during 2019.