Italian prosecutors are asking four members of the Egyptian security forces for answers on the kidnapping and murder of an Italian student in Cairo.
Giulio Regeni’s brutalized body was found by the side of a deserted road on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital in February 2016, showing signs of intensive torture. He went missing nine days earlier and was last seen near a metro station in Cairo.
Rome prosecutors said Thursday that a four-year investigation had been formally closed with “unequivocal” proof of the responsibility of the four agents.
They are now planning to press charges against Tariq Saber, Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim, Uhsam Helmi and Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif for aggravated kidnapping. Sharif is also under investigation for serious injury and murder.
The Cambridge University student had researched union activities among Egyptian street vendors for his doctoral thesis.
The four officers now have 20 days to present their statements or request to be heard in the case. An Italian judge will then examine the evidence and decide whether to indict and order a trial for some or all of the suspects.
Egyptian prosecutor Hmada al-Sawi last week dismissed Italy’s claims that they were not based on solid evidence and announced the temporary closure of an investigation.
According to analysts, it is extremely unlikely that the culprits will ever end up behind bars.
“From a legal point of view, we can now proceed with the trial, but the suspects will probably be tried in absentia,” said Antonella Massaro, professor of criminal law at the University of Rome 3.
“If there is no strong political pressure, I’m afraid the investigation will have a rather symbolic effect, rather than an effective one,” she said.
The two countries do not share an extradition treaty and the lack of collaboration from Egyptian officials has shown that this is not an option, Massaro said.
The Italian authorities have repeatedly accused their Egyptian counterparts of deceiving and obstructing their investigation. During the first autopsy of Regeni’s body, for example, Egyptian examiners concluded that the death was caused by a car crash.
Such findings contrasted sharply with those of Italian investigators who concluded that the 28-year-old had been tortured repeatedly within a week.
Handcuffed in chains
On Thursday, prosecutors confirmed that Regeni had endured “severe physical suffering” using red-hot objects, blades and batons. The testimony of an unidentified witness said the student was seen lying on the ground, handcuffed in iron chains with signs of redness on his chest.
The body was so disfigured that Regeni’s mother, Paola Regeni, said she could only recognize it “by the tip of her nose”.
The Regeni case has strained relations between the two countries, but critics argue that Italian officials could have done more.
“The Italian government has not been aggressive enough in its request,” said Luigi Marconi, chairman of the Senate committee for the protection of human rights.
“Failure to recall the Italian ambassador, as the Regeni family has been asking for for years, sent the wrong message that the two countries have ordinary diplomatic relations,” Marconi said.
In April 2016, Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt to protest what it described as lack of progress in the investigation. The diplomat was returned to Cairo the following year with the aim of “strengthening judicial cooperation”.
The problem, analysts say, is that geopolitical and economic interests clash in the search for justice with a country of strategic importance to Italy.
Egypt is “Italy’s most important interlocutor in the Middle East,” said Gabriele Iacovino, director of the Center for International Studies.
“Part of the equation is that the national oil and gas company Eni found one of its largest gas reserves in Egypt,” he said. In 2015, Eni discovered the Egyptian Zohr gas field, strengthening economic ties between Cairo and Rome.
Italy is also an important trading partner with Egypt. Its arms industry has become one of Egypt’s main suppliers – from 2016 to 2019, sales jumped from $ 8.3 million to over $ 980 million, according to annual parliamentary reports.
In June, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ensured that the Regeni affair remained at the center of the government’s dialogue with Egyptian authorities, while the country struck a deal worth $ 1.3 billion in sales of ‘weapons.