A Rome court has launched a trial against four Egyptian security officers accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo, including hours of deliberation on whether it is fair for the men to be tried in absentia.
The 28-year-old PhD student disappeared in Cairo on January 25, 2016 while investigating trade unions in Egypt. His body was discovered on a peripheral highway in Cairo nine days later, showing signs of extreme torture and abuse.
Prosecutors fiercely argued that the four defendants, all current or former employees of Egypt’s National Security Agency, should be tried in absentia in Rome, after Egyptian authorities blocked efforts to officially notify the four men of the proceedings. judicial
“There has been a strategy by the Egyptian National Security Agency to keep the four defendants out of Italian jurisdiction and protect them,” said Sergio Colaiocco, head of the Rome prosecutor’s office.
Egyptian officials, prosecutors said, ignored more than 30 official requests through diplomatic channels and years of repeated requests from the Italian prosecutor’s office to provide the men’s addresses, required to officially inform the defendants of the trials under the law. Italian law.
General Tariq Saber, Colonel Aser Ibrahim, Captain Hesham Helmi and Major Magdi Abd al-Sharif are charged with the “aggravated kidnapping” of Regeni, who disappeared in January 2016 in Cairo while investigating trade unions, an issue politically sensitive in the eyes of the Egyptian authorities. The four defendants face a sentence of up to eight years for kidnapping, while Sharif could receive a life sentence for “conspiracy to commit aggravated murder.”
The Italian government officially joined the state prosecutor in support of the trial to prosecute the four Egyptian security officers the day before the hearing. Italy previously mentioned he would try to extradite any convicted person during the judicial process. The trial culminates years of diplomatic tension over the murder of the young investigator.
The initial hearing took place in a cell-filled courtroom attached to a high-security facility built to try members of the mob. Prosecutors strongly argued that Egyptian officials’ efforts to ignore a flood of requests to inform security officials about the trial came after years of efforts to divert Italian authorities and avoid any investigation into the murder. Arguing that it was highly unlikely that four members of the Egyptian security state were unaware of the legal proceedings against them, they said Egyptian authorities had deliberately sought to disrupt the trial by blocking repeated efforts to contact the men.
Italian prosecutors previously said they tried to charge 13 more people, but that silence on the Egyptian side prevented them from gathering enough evidence to do so. The trial represents a unique opportunity to seek accountability from Egypt’s powerful security services, which are accused by rights groups of human rights abuses.
“The Egyptian attitude has been like a wall, one that has not allowed us to investigate further,” said Francesco Romeo, a lawyer for the prosecution. “We are talking about authorities in a country that has tried by all means to deviate the Italian procedures to find the truth, a systematic and organized way to avoid being involved in all this history. This is illegal in Italy, diverting police investigations. “
A court-appointed team of lawyers representing each of the defendants argued that a trial in absentia was unfair and that the proceedings should be stopped until Italy could guarantee that the defendants had acknowledged the trial or refused. officially to attend.
“It is not the National Security Agency that is being tried. We should not focus on whether the NSA was informed. [about proceedings]But if these four people had information and decided not to be here today voluntarily, ”said Annalisa Ticconi, Sharif’s defense attorney, during the hearing. He claimed that Italy risked European sanctions for its insistence on trying the men in absentia.
“Continuing with this trial without guaranteeing that these men are notified makes Italy no different from Egypt,” said one of the defense attorneys, Tranquillino Sarno. “Without the cooperation of the Egyptian authorities, this trial cannot be carried out … They are witnessing a trial against Egypt.”
Egypt closed its own investigation into Regeni’s murder in late 2020, claiming that the true killer is still unknown. Egyptian prosecutors attacked the Rome investigation in a statement shortly thereafter, claiming that the Italian side lacked evidence to convict the men and rejecting any involvement of its security officers in Regeni’s disappearance or murder.
Prosecutors argued that Egyptian authorities claimed Regeni was a spy trying to frame her work and travels as politically suspect while manipulating vital video evidence and mobile phone data requested by the Italian side.
They explained how Egypt prevented Italian efforts to investigate Regeni’s murder from the day her body was found on a peripheral road in Cairo in 2016. Alessandra Ballerini, who represents the Regeni family, described her extensive injuries, including broken bones. , broken teeth and carved letters. on his skin by his torturers.
One of the defendants, Aser Ibrahim, led the investigation into Regeni’s murder from the Egyptian side. “So they actually investigated themselves,” Colaiocco said.
Ballerini described how she was detained by the NSA and questioned upon arrival in Cairo in 2017 while working on the case, and how the Regeni family’s Egyptian legal team endured years of abuse due to their work, including the detention and torture of their members.
He added that at one point, the pressure from inside Egypt to thwart the investigation was so intense that NSA officials asked the Egyptian legal team to refer their work to the NSA for inspection.
“They said they would not act as informants and told them there would be repercussions against them and their families,” he said. “When they asked what that meant, they answered ‘ask Giulio’.”