Italian prosecutors have officially charged four members of Egypt’s national security agency with the kidnapping and murder of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni in Cairo.
Prosecutors in Rome accused Tariq Saber, Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim, Capt Uhsam Helmi and Maj Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif of kidnapping the young student in 2016, while Sharif is also accused of grievous bodily harm and murder.
They added that charges have been dropped against a fifth security official, Mahmoud Najem, who was previously named as a suspect in Regeni’s disappearance.
Regeni’s body was found on an outlying Cairo highway in February 2016 bearing signs of torture, long believed to be the work of Egypt’s security forces. But in the almost five years since his body was discovered, Egyptian officials stonewalled Italy’s efforts to investigate, dragging their feet when asked to provide evidence to the Italian prosecution and claiming others including a gang and enemy political groups were responsible for his death. The move to charge the suspects will once again draw international attention to the brutal murder, and represents a rare moment of accountability for the Egyptian security state and its use of such practices.
In a statement declaring they would suspend their own investigation in late November, Egypt’s public prosecution said “the perpetrator of the student’s murder remains unknown.” Any move to indict members of the security services, they said, “was not based on consistent evidence,” but any accusations against security officials were “individual acts by them, with no connection to any official institutions in Egypt.”
The brutal murder upended Italian-Egyptian relations, leading Rome to withdraw its ambassador to Egypt in 2016 before appointing a new ambassador a year later. The lower house of Italy’s parliament cut relations with its Egyptian counterpart in 2017.
Yet other parts of the Italian state have worked to improve relations with Egypt in the intervening years, notably the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who in June quietly approved a mammoth arms sale to Egypt following months of covert negotiations. The initial deal, worth €1.2bn (£1.09bn), is part a much larger potential sale worth up to €10bn. The Italian oil and gas giant Eni also invested $16bn (£12bn) in Egypt’s Zohr natural gas field.
Meanwhile Italian prosecutors continued to supply a steady stream of ugly details about Regeni’s murder. They said Egyptian security forces ensnared the 28-year-old “in a spiderweb,” prior to his death, gaining information from those close to him in Cairo while he researched Egyptian labour movements.
The move to demand that Egypt answer for the actions of its powerful and sprawling security services is all but unique. Internally, Egypt has long provided impunity for officers accused of any crimes committed against civilians.
The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, whose lawyers act as the Regeni family’s legal counsel in Egypt, revealed last September that security forces have forcibly “disappeared” 2,723 people since 2015. Enforced disappearances, where citizens are secretly detained by security agents without access to lawyers or their families, are associated with frequent use of torture.
Details of how Egyptian security officials forcibly disappeared, tortured and murdered Regeni are likely to further damage relations with Italy.
“The public display of evidence that Egyptian officials tortured a student to death is going to be hugely damaging to Egypt’s image,” said Timothy Kaldas of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Kaldas emphasised this will also increase pressure on the Italian government to compel Egypt and its interior ministry to comply with the trial.
“The Egyptian government is a regime comprised primarily of security institutions,” he said. “They will be all the less likely to entertain accountability for security officers.”
The men are expected to be tried in absentia. Although Egypt and Italy do not have an extradition treaty, any move to extradite suspects would require their detention in Egypt.
“We cannot force Egypt to give up people they have in their territory,” said Nicola Canestrini, an Italian criminal defence lawyer and specialist in international law, including extradition.
Canestrini emphasised that fair trial practise requires the Italian authorities to exhaust all possible efforts to ensure the accused are fully informed about the trial before declining to attend.
“Italian diplomats should be sure these men really receive those requests and if they don’t show up in Italy it means they voluntarily decided not to defend themselves,” he said. “No one tell me we’re not able to find addresses of some people there.”