Italian prosecutors are seeking answers from four members of Egypt’s security forces over the abduction and murder of an Italian student in Cairo.
Giulio Regeni’s brutalised body was found by the side of a deserted road on the outskirts of Egypt’s capital in February 2016, bearing signs of extensive torture. He disappeared nine days earlier and was last seen near a subway stop in Cairo.
Rome prosecutors said on Thursday a four-year investigation was formally closed with “unequivocal” proof of the four agents’ responsibility.
They now plan to press charges against Tariq Saber, Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim, Uhsam Helmi, and Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif for aggravated kidnapping. Sharif is also being investigated for aggravated injury and murder.
The Cambridge University student had been researching union activities among Egyptian street vendors for his doctoral thesis.
The four agents now have 20 days to submit statements or ask to be heard in the case. An Italian judge will then review the evidence and decide whether to indict and order a trial for any or all of the suspects.
Last week, Egyptian prosecutor Hmada al-Sawi dismissed Italy’s allegations claiming they were not based on solid evidence and announced the temporary closure of an investigation.
According to analysts, it is extremely unlikely the culprits will ever end up behind bars.
“From a legal standpoint we can now proceed with the trial, but the suspects are likely going to 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 am 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 by Egyptian officials showed it was not an option, Massaro explained.
Italian authorities have repeatedly accused their Egyptian counterparts of misleading and impeding their investigation. In the first autopsy of Regeni’s body, for instance, Egyptian examiners concluded the death was caused by a car accident.
Such findings were in stark contrast to those of Italian investigators who concluded the 28-year-old had been tortured on several occasions in the span of a week.
Handcuffed in chains
On Thursday, prosecutors confirmed Regeni endured “acute physical suffering” through the use of red-hot objects, blades and batons. Testimony from one unidentified witness said the student was seen lying on the floor 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 recognise him “by the tip of his nose”.
The Regeni case has strained relations between the two countries but critics argue Italian officials could have done more.
“The Italian government has not been incisive enough in its request,” said Luigi Marconi, president of the Senate committee for the protection of human rights.
“Failing to call back the Italian ambassador, as the Regeni’s family has been asking for years, sent the wrong message that the two countries hold ordinary diplomatic relations,” said Marconi.
In April 2016, Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt to protest what it said was a lack of progress in the investigation. The diplomat was sent back to Cairo the following year with the aim to “reinforce judicial cooperation”.
At issue, analysts say, is that geopolitical and economic interests collide with 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 Center for International Studies.
“The fact that the national oil and gas company, Eni, has found in Egypt one of its biggest gas reserves, it’s part of the equation,” he said. In 2015, Eni discovered Egypt’s Zohr gas field, tightening economic ties between Cairo and Rome.
Italy is also a significant trade partner with Egypt. Its arms industry has become one of Egypt’s main suppliers – from 2016 to 2019 sales jumped from $8.3m to more than $980m, according to annual parliamentary reports.
In June, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte assured the Regeni case remained at the centre of the government’s dialogue with Egyptian authorities, while the country sealed a deal worth $1.3bn in weapons sales.