Four high-ranking members of the Egyptian security forces will stand trial in Rome on Thursday, after a years-long investigation into the murder of Giulio Regeni.
The 28-year-old 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 numerous traces of torture.
Italian prosecutors will present their case in the bunker of Rebibbia prison against three members of the Egyptian National Security Agency (NSA) and an investigative police officer in Cairo.
General Tariq Sabir, Col Usham Helmi and Col Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim face kidnapping charges, while Major Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif is also charged with causing “grievous bodily harm” and “murder. worsen “.
None are scheduled to attend the trial.
Why are the suspects absent?
The decision of the High Court as to whether their absence is considered voluntary will be at the heart of the hearing.
A trial can proceed without the presence of a suspect if sufficient evidence shows that the Italian authorities have done everything possible to inform them of the charges.
Italian prosecutors have repeatedly requested the legal residence of the four, but Egyptian authorities have not responded to the appeal.
“This phase is critical because it will show whether Egypt has succeeded in preventing the trial from taking place by not collaborating,” a source familiar with the matter told Al Jazeera.
Italian media reported on Wednesday that the prime minister’s office would become a civil party to the trial and that the four prime ministers in power since Regeni’s death would be called to testify.
Lawyer for the Regeni family, Alessandra Ballerini, has reportedly announced her intention to seek testimony from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The “unequivocal” evidence
Regeni was a doctoral student at Cambridge University researching independent unions, which were among the main players in the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Italian prosecutors, who say Regeni was followed for 40 days before his disappearance, believe the student was in the NSA spotlight when he offered Mohammed Abdullah, head of the street vendors’ union, to l ” help apply for a £ 10,000 ($ 13,000) grant from a UK non-governmental organization.
These findings came to light last December when Italian prosecutors Michele Prestipino and Sergio Coloaiocco presented “unequivocal” evidence in the most detailed report to date of what happened before and after Regeni’s disappearance. .
A 15-year NSA employee, who was among the five key witnesses mentioned by prosecutors, described seeing the Italian student in Room 13 of the agency’s Lazougly office. The old villa was the site where foreigners suspected of plotting against the country’s national security were usually taken.
“When I entered [room 13,] I noticed iron chains used to tie people up, he was half naked, the upper part of his body had signs of torture… he was delusional, ”the officer told Italian prosecutors.
Once the four agents were named and charged, a dozen more people approached Italian prosecutors. Among these, three testimonies were considered reliable and were officially added to the file.
Italian prosecutors have repeatedly complained about their Egyptian counterparts, whom they accuse of not collaborating and of deceiving.
No one has been charged in Egypt, and legal experts have said the culprits are unlikely to ever end up behind bars because 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 shootout, claiming they were in possession of some of the researcher’s personal belongings. But Italian officials dismissed the move as a cover-up.
Two years later, Egypt stopped collaborating after being informed that five members of the Egyptian security apparatus were under investigation, according to Italian prosecutors. Italy eventually indicted four officers.
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”.
“They are not immune”
Activists said the case marks the first time that members of the NSA have been held accountable, with widespread impunity in Egypt.
The security forces “feel invincible, that they cannot be touched,” Hussein Baoumi, Egypt researcher 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 lawsuit also says that there are other places of justice, especially when the ones in Egypt are not functioning.”
Human rights groups have long accused al-Sisi’s government of carrying out a broad crackdown on dissent, alleging 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 disappearances” since 2013.