A court in Italy has been asked by prosecutors to put on trial four senior members of Egypt’s powerful security services over their suspected role in the disappearance and murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo on January 25, 2016.
Regeni’s body was discovered on an outlying Cairo highway nine days later, displaying signs of extreme torture and abuse.
After five years, the case of the 28-year-old doctoral student who went missing while researching Egypt’s unions, have finally reached an Italian court.
Prosecutors in Rome accused Gen. Tariq Saber, Col. Aser Ibrahim, Capt. Hesham Helmi, and Maj. Magdi Abd al-Sharif of the “aggravated kidnapping” of Regeni. 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 25 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 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.
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.”
On April 14, 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 Regeni’s torture and murder. The witnesses, deemed reliable by the prosecutors, say Regeni was kidnapped by agents of the Egyptian National Security Agency (NSA) on January 25 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 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.”
All four accused officers are still serving, and Saber was recently promoted. “This means they’re potentially in a position to commit similar crimes,” said Baoumi.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said 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 Baoumi. (The Guardian)