Italian prosecutors investigating the 2016 death of an Italian student who was killed in Egypt are set to request authorization for a trial-in-absentia of several Egyptian security officials, according to Italian press reports.
Italy has no extradition treaty with Cairo. According to Italian officials, Egyptian authorities have often stonewalled the two-year long probe by investigative magistrates in Rome into the death of 28-year-old Giulio Regeni.
The student’s badly disfigured and tortured body was discovered in February 2016 dumped alongside the Cairo-Alexandria highway nine days after he disappeared.
Regeni, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge who was born in Friuli, a mountainous northeast Italian region, had been burnt and many of his bones broken. Initials were carved into his skin. His mother struggled to identify him.
Spotlight on el-Sissi
A trial would throw an international spotlight on Egypt’s jailing of more than 60,000 political opponents and how detainees are treated, analysts say.
Italy’s newspaper of record, Corriere della Sera, says Rome prosecutors, due to unveil their findings next week, plan to ask for up to five intelligence officers to be charged for the murder.
“It will turn into a trial of the Egypt of [President] Abdel Fattah el-Sissi,” the paper said.
Last year, Italian prosecutors said Regeni had been ensnared in a “spider's web” spun by the Egyptian security services in the weeks before his death.
Prosecutors Sergio Colaiocco and Michele Prestipino placed five members of Egypt's security forces under official investigation for alleged involvement in the disappearance of the postgraduate student.
Egyptian officials have offered multiple explanations for Regeni’s death, including claims he died as a result of a car accident or because of a lovers’ quarrel. Later, Egyptian authorities said he had been murdered by a crime gang, whose members died in a gunfight with police.
But Italian officials and rights groups, as well as his family, have long suspected he died at the hands of Egyptian security officers, who suspected he was spying. Regeni’s research was into trade unions and he interviewed street hawkers for his work, prompting one to tell police the Italian was a spy.
Last year, Colaiocco told an Italian parliamentary commission that Egyptian officials had tried on several occasions to mislead investigators.
Italian prosecutors are scheduled to conclude their probe on December 4 and will have to seek a court’s agreement for a trial to take place without the suspects being present.
Italian officials say they do not expect the Egyptian president will agree to extradite them. Among those under investigation are Major Magdy Ibrquaim Abdelaal Sharif and his superior, Colonel Osan Helmy, both of Egypt’s National Security Agency.
In 2016 Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt due to lack of cooperation from the Egyptian authorities. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has pressed President el-Sissi for cooperation in several phone calls in the five years since the student’s murder.
“Conte managed to secure some material but often it was unhelpful,” an Italian official told VOA. He cited CCTV footage from a Cairo metro station where Regeni was last seen, but there were crucial gaps in the recording. Italian authorities were able to secure the phone records of the suspects.
In 2018, el-Sissi promised to bring Regeni’s killers to justice, but issued a statement rejecting Rome’s list of suspects. Last year, Regeni’s exasperated parents, Paola and Claudio, issued a counter-statement, saying, “We cannot be satisfied by your condolences anymore, nor by your failed promises.” Regeni’s family and rights campaigners have been critical of Rome for not pressuring Cairo more and continuing to conduct arms deals with Egypt, including the sale of two frigates.
On Friday, a spokesman for el-Sissi said instructions have been given to Egyptian officials to cooperate fully with Italian counterparts. He underlined the “unprecedented” judicial cooperation already offered.
Regeni disappeared on 25 January 2016 — the fifth anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Rights activists arrested
Meanwhile, the Egyptian government this week has faced an international outcry following the arrests of members of a leading Egyptian human rights organization. Three NGO workers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR, including its executive director Gasser Abdel Razek, were seized after meeting with foreign diplomats. The charges against them include belonging to a terrorist organization, undermining public security by spreading false information and using the Internet to promulgate false news.
Razek’s lawyer told reporters his client’s head had been shaved and he is being kept in solitary confinement without mattress or blankets and with no heat.
Several countries have condemned the arrests. Britain's foreign office told the Egyptian government “all human rights defenders should be able to work without fear of arrest or reprisals.” The European Union has voiced “significant concern” over the arrests. And President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, tweeted: “Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.”
Share concern re. #Egypt's arrests of three employees of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights. https://t.co/hR5JtLcAYI— Antony Blinken (@ABlinken) November 20, 2020
Egypt says EIPR was not registered and says the international protests amount to interference in the country’s internal affairs.