Four high-ranking members of Egypt’s security forces are standing trial in an Italian court, after a years-long investigation into the murder of Giulio Regeni.
The 28-year-old postgraduate student disappeared in Cairo on January 25, 2016. Nine days later, his body was found on the side of a highway in the Egyptian capital bearing extensive signs of torture.
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Italian prosecutors started presenting their case in Rome on Thursday in the bunker room of Rebibbia prison against three members of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA), and one officer of Cairo’s investigative police force.
General Tariq Sabir, Colonel Usham Helmi and Colonel Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim face kidnapping charges, while Major Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif is also accused of causing “grievous body harm” and “aggravated murder”.
None is expected to attend the trial.
Why are the suspects absent?
The high court’s decision on whether their absence is considered voluntarily will be central to the hearing.
A trial can proceed without a suspect’s presence if enough evidence shows Italian authorities did everything possible to notify them of the charges. Italian prosecutors have repeatedly requested the legal residence of the four, but Egyptian authorities have not heeded the call.
Court-appointed defence lawyers had previously argued the trial should not go ahead as it was not certain the suspects were aware of the proceedings. The objection was overruled in May by the preliminary hearing judge who said the media coverage, among other factors, was such that the news would have reached the suspects. The high court judge will now have to make a new assessment on the same matter.
“This phase is critical as it will show if Egypt has been successful in preventing the trial from taking place by failing to collaborate,” a source close to the case told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Italian media reported on Wednesday that the prime minister’s office is going to become civil party to the trial and that the four prime ministers in power since Regeni’s death will be called to testify.
The Regeni family’s lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, reportedly announced her intention to request the testimony of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The ‘unequivocal’ proofs
Regeni was a PhD student with the University of Cambridge researching independent trade unions, who were among the key players behind the 2011 revolution that removed President Hosni Mubarak.
Italian prosecutors, who say Regeni was followed for 40 days before his disappearance, believe that the student came under the NSA’s spotlight as he offered Mohammed Abdullah, leader of the street vendors’ union, help to apply for a 10,000-pound ($13,000) grant from a British non-governmental organisation.
These findings came to light last December when Italian prosecutors, Michele Prestipino and Sergio Coloaiocco, presented “unequivocal” proof in the most detailed report yet of what happened before and after Regeni disappeared.
An NSA employee of 15 years, who was among five key witnesses the prosecutors referred to, described seeing the Italian student inside room number 13 of the agency’s Lazougly office. The old villa was the site foreigners suspected of plotting against the country’s national security were usually brought to.
“When I entered [room 13,] I noticed iron chains used to tie people, he was half naked, the superior part of his body had signed of torture … he was delirious,” the officer told Italian prosecutors.
After the four agents were named and accused, about 10 more people approached Italian prosecutors. Of these, three testimonies were deemed reliable and were officially added to the case.
‘They are not immune’
Activists said the case marks the first time that NSA members are being held accountable, with impunity widespread in Egypt.
Security forces “feel they are invincible, that they can’t be touched,” Hussein Baoumi, a researcher focusing on Egypt for Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera. “The trial sends a very important message that they are not immune, that they will be held accountable.
“But the trial also says that other venues for justice do exist, especially when those within Egypt are not functioning.”
Rights groups have long accused the el-Sisi’s government of carrying out a broad crackdown on dissent, alleging the torture of political prisoners. Cairo has denied such accusations.
In a report published in 2020, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms documented 2,723 cases of “enforced disappearance” since 2013.
Italian prosecutors have repeatedly complained about their Egyptian counterparts, who they accuse of failing to collaborate and deception.
No one has been charged in Egypt, and legal experts have said it is unlikely the culprits will ever end up behind bars as Cairo and Rome do not share an extradition treaty.
In March 2016, Egyptian authorities said security forces killed five members of a criminal gang in a shoot-out – claiming they were in possession of some of the researcher’s belongings. But Italian officials dismissed the move as a cover-up.
Two years later, Egypt stopped collaborating after it was notified that five members of the Egyptian security apparatus were being placed under investigation, according to the Italian prosecutors. Italy ultimately charged four agents.
In December, Egyptian prosecutor Hamada al-Sawi announced the temporary closure of their investigation, saying Cairo would not pursue a criminal case “because the perpetrator is unknown”.