Giulio Regeni Murder Trial Opens in Italy With Egyptian Security Officials Absent

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ROME—A trial of four Egyptian security officials charged with the kidnapping, torture and killing of Italian student

Giulio Regeni

opened Thursday, the first time Egyptian officials have been prosecuted abroad for crimes that human rights groups say have been committed on a large scale in the north African country in recent years.

The four are being tried in absentia and are represented in Italy by court-appointed lawyers.

The hearing is a milestone in a five-year quest by Mr. Regeni’s family and Italian prosecutors to hold the alleged killers of the 28-year-old doctoral student accountable in a case that has grabbed national attention in Italy.

In 2016, Mr. Regeni was found dead on the side of a highway on the edge of Cairo bearing cigarette burns, broken teeth and fractured bones. He had been missing for several days.

Italian prosecutors said Mr. Regeni had been under surveillance by the Egyptian state before his murder. They allege he was abducted by Egyptian security agents and died after being tortured for days inside the compound of Egypt’s Ministry of Interior in downtown Cairo, in a building of Egypt’s powerful National Security Agency.

Egypt’s chief prosecutor’s office has disputed Italy’s investigation and said that Mr. Regeni’s killers remain unknown. Egyptian authorities haven’t acknowledged the trial or commented on the specifics of the charges. The Egyptian foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A lawyer for one of the Egyptian security officials on Thursday. So far, Egyptian authorities have refused to help Italian prosecutors locate the four agents.



Photo:

Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

The proceedings are expected to offer a rare window into the inner workings of Egypt’s security state, which has been responsible for the secret detention, torture and summary killing of thousands of people in recent years, according to human rights groups, victims, and Western officials.

Italian prosecutors are trying security officers Tariq Ali Sabir, Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim and Usham Helmi on charges of kidnapping. Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif, who was, along with Mr. Sabir, a member of the NSA at the time of the killing, is charged with kidnapping, murder and causing grievous bodily harm.

The defendants face a maximum of more than 20 years in jail. The trial, including appeals, is expected to last for years. If found guilty, it is unlikely they will be jailed. Italy could seek to extradite them, but Egypt will likely refuse to do so, according to legal experts.

More on Giulio Regeni’s Murder

So far, Egyptian authorities have refused to help Italian prosecutors locate the four agents, say people familiar with the proceedings.

Their lawyers didn’t reply to requests for comment. The court didn’t specify if the men have entered pleas.

Egypt’s chief prosecutor’s office closed its own investigation into the killing last December, saying that the killers remain unknown and that the Italian investigation wasn’t based on “consistent evidence.”

Police and security officers rarely face charges in Egypt over torture and deaths in custody, creating what security analysts and rights groups say is a climate of impunity.

More than 150 witnesses will be called to testify, including policemen, forensic scientists and people who knew Mr. Regeni, according to a person familiar with the matter. The lawyer of the Regeni family will also call Egyptian President

Abdel Fattah Al Sisi

and former and the current Italian prime minister and foreign ministers. The Italian government asked Thursday to be admitted as a civil plaintiff in the trial.

Most of the witnesses are in Egypt and it is unclear whether they will be able to travel to Italy. They could only testify from Egypt with the cooperation of Egyptian judicial authorities, which appears to be unlikely, people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Regeni was a Cambridge University doctoral student who was in Egypt researching the country’s independent trade unions. He disappeared on Jan. 25, 2016, the fifth anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled former President

Hosni Mubarak.

His body was found with injuries and marks that autopsies identified as signs of torture.

The killing sparked a diplomatic crisis with Italy at the time, resulting in Rome recalling its ambassador from Egypt later in 2016 for a year. Rome later restored ties.

Mr. Sisi this week said he rejected European imposition of human rights standards on his country. “We need no one to tell us that [your] human rights standards involve violations. I am responsible for 100 million souls,” he said, according to Egypt’s state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram.

Demonstrators on Jan.25, 2020, in Turin, Italy, marked the fourth anniversary since Mr. Regini’s disappearance in Egypt.



Photo:

marco bertorello/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The trial is expected to turn a spotlight on the plight of tens of thousands of people who have been jailed in a government crackdown on political opponents since the 2013 military coup that brought Mr. Sisi to power, according to human rights groups. Some political prisoners are held for years without charge under Egypt’s system of pretrial detention.

“Egyptian authorities have been increasingly using a ‘revolving door system’ whereby they file new accusations when the preventive detention period ends, keeping the accused people in jail for years,” said Riccardo Noury, a spokesman for Amnesty International Italy.

Egypt’s security state has also come under a spotlight in Italy due to the case of another prisoner, Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian graduate student studying in Bologna, Italy.

Mr. Zaki was arrested at Cairo’s airport in February last year on a visit home.

Egyptian prosecutors accused him of threatening national security, inciting illegal protests and spreading terrorist propaganda because of

Facebook

posts where Mr. Zaki allegedly criticized Egypt’s record on human rights. His lawyers have said the posts are fake and weren’t written by Mr. Zaki. He is still in jail in Egypt and faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

Egyptian officials haven’t commented on the case.

Write to Giovanni Legorano at [email protected], Jared Malsin at [email protected] and Margherita Stancati at [email protected]

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