Italian judge asked to put Egyptian officers on trial over student’s death

Giulio Regeni’s body was found with signs of torture and abuse in Cairo in 2016

People attend a march and torchlight procession in memory of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Rome, in January  2018. Photograph: Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto

People attend a march and torchlight procession in memory of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Rome, in January 2018. Photograph: Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto

 

Italian prosecutors have asked a judge to put four senior members of Egypt’s powerful security services on trial over their suspected role in the disappearance and murder of Giulio Regeni in Cairo in 2016, as the case finally reached a courtroom five years after his death.

The 28-year-old doctoral student went missing in Cairo on January 25th, 2016, while researching Egypt’s unions. His body was discovered on an outlying Cairo highway nine days later, displaying signs of extreme torture and abuse.

The Rome prosecutors have accused Gen Tariq Saber, Col Aser Ibrahim, Capt Hesham Helmi, and Maj Magdi Abd al-Sharif of the “aggravated kidnapping” of Mr Regeni. Maj Sharif, they say, should also be charged with “conspiracy to commit aggravated murder”.

Any trial will take place in absentia, after the Egyptian state refused to recognise the Italian legal process or extradite the four suspects. Preliminary hearings were suspended until May 25th after one of the state-appointed defence lawyers was quarantined due to exposure to Covid-19.

The hearings mark the culmination of five years of investigation into Mr Regeni’s death, and a vanishingly rare moment of accountability for Egypt’s security forces. A judge is expected to spend the coming weeks weighing whether to continue the trial, potentially indicting the suspects for murder before full trial proceedings begin.

The Regeni family, their legal team and human rights groups investigating a pattern of abuses by Egyptian security forces welcomed the hearing, despite it occurring in absentia. Some observers remarked that the Italian authorities should do more to pressure Egypt into extraditing the suspects.

Potential witnesses

Regeni’s parents, Paola and Claudio Regeni, issued a joint statement via their lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, this week urging more potential witnesses to come forward.

“Many other witnesses are coming forward,” they said. “Time is a great ally. We’ll keep asking everyone with information to come forward and speak. We will guarantee their security and will not disclose their identity, as we have done so far. Once again we ask you: help us, for Giulio and for all of us.”

Paola and Claudio Regeni in Rome: A preliminary hearing against four Egyptian security officers has been postponed until May 25th. Photograph: Massimo Percossi
Paola and Claudio Regeni in Rome: A preliminary hearing against four Egyptian security officers has been postponed until May 25th. Photograph: Massimo Percossi

On April 14th, Rome prosecutors said three new witnesses came forward to accuse the four Egyptian security service members of torturing and murdering the Italian student.

One of the witnesses reportedly told prosecutors that the four staged a “robbery gone wrong” to try to cover up Mr Regeni’s torture and murder. The witnesses, deemed reliable by the prosecutors, say Mr Regeni was kidnapped by agents of the Egyptian National Security Agency (NSA) on January 25th, 2016, and taken to at least two security facilities in the space of a few hours.

Egyptian officials have denied any involvement in the killing and Egypt’s public prosecutor officially closed its own investigation into Mr Regeni’s murder late last year, saying that the Italian authorities’ claims of the officers’ involvement did not “rise to the level of evidence”.

“It’s unprecedented for NSA officers to be prosecuted and have the case heard in a court of law,” said Hussein Baoumi, a researcher on Egypt with Amnesty International. “Torture is so prevalent in Egypt, everyone knows the NSA is practising it as well as enforced disappearances and unlawful killings. But there has never been a case where an officer was prosecuted and went to trial. Yes, this is in absentia, but it sends a strong message that you can’t escape justice forever.”

Soured relations

All four accused officers are still serving, and Gen Saber was recently promoted. “This means they’re potentially in a position to commit similar crimes,” said Mr Baoumi.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, whose lawyers act as the Regeni family’s legal representation in Egypt, reported last year that at least 2,653 people had been forcibly “disappeared” by security forces, primarily the NSA, since 2015. “The NSA has been freed to commit violations unchecked,” the commission said.

Mr Regeni’s death soured relations between Italy and Egypt, and Rome initially withdrew its ambassador from Cairo in protest. It subsequently restored its top envoy and there has been no let-up in trade relations. Days after prosecutors called for the trial of the four Egyptians, Italy handed over the first of two frigates to the Egyptian navy in a deal worth up to €1.2 billion.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said that Italian authorities should resist Egypt’s efforts to protect the officers. “The trial is a positive step, but these officers are still potentially escaping justice if the Egyptians authorities don’t hand them over to Italy or prosecute them in Egypt, which they don’t want to do,” said Mr Baoumi. – Guardian