SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: February 01, 2021

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Central European University

Region & Country:Northern Africa | Egypt

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 1, 2021, Egyptian authorities arrested master’s student Ahmed Samir Santawy.

Santawy is a second-year MA student in Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University in Vienna, Austria. His studies focus on women’s rights in Egypt, in particular reproductive rights.

Santawy was arrested at a police station after following an order by state authorities to make an appearance. Sources indicate that authorities held Santawy incommunicado for five days, during which he was interrogated about his studies and social media activity. 

On February 6, the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) charged Santawy with “membership in a terrorist group,” “spreading false news,” and “using a social media account to spread false news.” According to Amnesty International, the charges are based on an alleged social media post critical of the government — Santawy has denied publishing the post — and an investigation by the National Security Agency. The file compiled for the investigation has not been disclosed to Santawy or his lawyer. 

During his appearance in front of the SSSP, Santawy reported that he was blindfolded and beaten by his interrogators following his arrest. The SSSP ordered Santawy remanded in custody for fifteen days.

Santawy, an Egyptian citizen, had returned to Egypt on December 15 for a family visit. Upon his arrival, authorities reportedly stopped him at the airport and briefly interrogated him. (According to Amnesty International, border officials began questioning Santawy at his departures and arrivals from the airport since he began his studies at CEU in September 2019.) On January 23, authorities raided Santawy’s family’s home, during which they confiscated surveillance camera footage and told his family that he was required to present himself to the authorities.

As of February 17, 2021, Santawy is being held at Liman Tora Prison, located south of Cairo, with no access to his family or lawyers.

Since 2016, a growing number of graduate students have been targeted by Egyptian state authorities. In January 2016, Italian PhD candidate Giulio Regeni was disappeared and later found murdered while conducting research on labor-related issues (see report). In March 2018, University of Washington PhD candidate Walid Salim was detained in connection with his research on the judiciary (see report). And in February 2020, authorities detained Patrick George Zaki, a University of Bologna master’s student and a human rights researcher (see report). 

Scholars at Risk is concerned by the arrest, incommunicado detention, and interrogation of a student, apparently in connection with the nonviolent exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party. SAR is further concerned by reports that a student was subjected to torture while in state custody. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from retaliating against the nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression, and to refrain from torture and other cruel or inhumane conduct that may violate international human rights treaties. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, the arrest and incommunicado detention of a student in apparent connection with their academic or expressive activities undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On June 22, the State Security Emergency Misdemeanor Court sentenced Santawy to four years in prison and a fine of 500 pounds for publishing “false news.” Verdicts given by State Security Emergency Courts cannot be appealed. On June 23, Santawy began a hunger strike.