A student’s death inflames tension between Egypt and Italy

Giulio Regeni's family follows his coffin during his funeral service Feb. 12 in Fiumicello, Italy. The doctoral student's badly bruised body was found by a road outside Cairo.
(Alberto Lancia / ANSA)

Initially, an Egyptian police official said Giulio Regeni’s death was a result of a road accident.

On Feb. 3 the badly bruised body of Regeni, a 28-year-old doctoral student from Italy, was found on the side of a highway outside Cairo. Regeni, who had been researching labor unions, had disappeared Jan. 25, on the anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests that convulsed Egypt five years ago.

The road accident story was quickly swept aside. Both Egyptian and Italian forensics found that Regeni’s body showed signs of torture that included beating and electric shocks to his genitals. His mother would later say at a news conference that she recognized her son only by the tip of his nose when she saw him in a Rome morgue.

Then in March, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry announced a “breakthrough” in the case, saying Regeni was killed by a mob of criminals impersonating police officers to rob foreigners. According to the ministry, some of Regeni’s belongings were found in the home of one of the gang members, who were all allegedly shot by Egyptian police in an exchange of gunfire.


The ministry’s claim was widely ridiculed in Italy and tensions between the two countries grew, with Italy recalling its ambassador from Egypt for consultations over the matter. This followed the Italian Foreign Ministry’s threat to adopt “immediate and proportional measures” if Egyptian investigators failed to unveil solid facts regarding the case.

Egyptian authorities said Regeni's ID card was found at the home of his suspected killers.
(Egyptian Interior Ministry)

On Saturday in Cairo, Egypt’s deputy prosecutor refused to reveal details of the investigations into the death of Regeni.

“We won’t be discussing any facts because investigations are still ongoing. According to the law, investigations should be kept in secrecy until the probe is officially concluded,” deputy prosecutor Mustafa Soliman said.

Soliman was part of an Egyptian delegation that made a two-day trip to Rome on Thursday, during which the Egyptians informed Italian authorities of the latest developments in the case. At the meeting in Rome, the Egyptians stuck by claims that Mr. Regeni was kidnapped and killed by a gang of criminals in Cairo.

A friend of Regeni in Egypt, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal, said, “What we know for sure is that Giulio was arrested by a number of police officers ... when he was walking from his home to a nearby metro station to meet another friend downtown Cairo.”

“Autopsy showed that his body was tortured to death in the same way many Egyptian dissidents usually face,” he added.

In a statement Friday, Italian investigators said the Egyptians had handed over the cellphone records of two friends of Regeni who were in Cairo in January, and a crime scene report with photos of the roadside where his body was found.

The chief Italian prosecutor “reiterated his conviction that there are no elements to directly link the gang to the torture and death of Giulio Regeni,” prosecutors said in a statement.

Responding to the scant information handed over, the Italian Foreign Ministry stated, “On the basis of these developments, an urgent evaluation is required of the most opportune initiatives to relaunch the commitment needed to find the truth about the barbarous killing of Regeni.”

According to Soliman, Italian investigators have called on Egyptians to provide CCTV security footage of the street where Regeni disappeared, as well as records of all cellphone traffic in the area where Regeni is believed to have been taken and the area where his body was found.

“For technical reasons, CCTV footage is automatically erased. We even contacted the smart cameras’ manufacturing company and they informed us that they cannot retrieve the erased footage, but we acquired a special software that might enable us to retain the footage,” Soliman told reporters.

“The other [Italian] request — which is a point of disagreement — is the full phone call records … such demand contradicts with Egypt’s Constitution and Egyptian laws,” he said.

Italian investigators are reportedly hoping to match phone records with the two locations to find a suspect who may have been involved in both seizing the student and dumping his body.

If I can speak for [Regeni’s] friends, we are outraged by the nonstop lies and coverups in the last two months in Egypt.

Paz Zarate, attorney

On Saturday, Italian press agency ANSA reported that chief Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone would send a new, formal request to Egypt for the cellphone records of 10 suspects.

The rapidity of the Italian response to the failed meetings points to Italy’s determination to be firm.

Italy is a major commercial partner of Egypt, and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has carefully built a relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, but outraged Italian public opinion has left him little room for vacillation.

Italians have staged protests demanding justice for Regeni, who had been pursuing his doctorate at Cambridge University in England. The country has also been impressed by the courage of Regeni’s mother, Paola Regeni, who said during a news conference last month that she will be able to cry for her son only after his killers are caught.

A friend of Regeni said Saturday that Italy’s recall of its ambassador showed Rome was set to keep up the pressure on Egypt.

“Italy does not have a tradition of protecting its citizens abroad, so this is an important step,” said Paz Zarate, a Chilean attorney who specializes in international law. “For the foreign minister to speak of countermeasures is a departure from tradition.”

Zarate acted as a mentor to Regeni when they worked together at the Oxford Analytica think tank in England in 2014. She befriended him and encouraged him to study at Cambridge.

“If I can speak for his friends, we are outraged by the nonstop lies and coverups in the last two months in Egypt. It is really important that the West looks at Sisi’s human rights record very closely.”

In a report last week, the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee singled out the Regeni case as an example of the British Foreign Office’s scant regard for human rights around the world.

“We feel that overall the UK has not been supporting the Italian authorities as forcefully as [Regeni’s] murder deserved,” the report stated.

On March 10, the European Parliament voted for a resolution that called for Regeni’s killers to be found and denounced alleged human rights violations in Egypt.

The Regeni case has highlighted criticism of Egypt’s human rights record under Sisi’s rule. Thousands of political dissidents are jailed while hundreds have reportedly died in police custody or faced forced disappearances since the army-led ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Hassan and Kington are special correspondents. Hassan reported from Cairo and Kington from Rome.


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