Why was he killed? Brutal death of Italian student in Egypt confounds expertsGiulio Regeni was burned, beaten and mutilated in a murder that bears all the hallmarks of Egypt’s security forces. But a month after he was last seen alive, speculation as to why he was targeted remains just that
Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome and Ruth Michaelson in Cairo Wednesday 24 February 2016 13.02 GMT Last modified on Wednesday 24 February 2016 14.25 GMThttp://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/24/why-was-he-killed-brutal-death-of-italian-student-in-egypt-confounds-expertsCambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni was conducting research into labour unions in Egypt. An examination of his body concluded he was tortured before his death. Photograph: Facebook
Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Cambridge PhD student from Italy, was on his way to see a friend when he left his flat near Behoos metro station in Cairo on 25 January.
It was a tense day in the otherwise bustling neighbourhood on the western bank of the Nile, where street sellers hawk cheap plastic sunglasses, books and shoes from groaning tables.
That day marked the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak, and tension was palpable across the city after weeks of intense police activity aimed at scuppering any pro-democracy demonstrations.
It was also the last day Regeni was seen alive.
Nine days later – and days after the Italian foreign ministry announced that it was concerned about his mysterious disappearance – Regeni’s body was found in a ditch near a desert highway between Cairo and Alexandria. An examination of his body in Rome concluded that he was tortured before his death: he was burned, beaten, and mutilated. His nails had been ripped out and he suffered from broken ribs and a brain haemorrhage.
For experts who study Egypt and its infamous record on human rights, Regeni’s murder bears all the hallmarks of an extrajudicial killing by the state’s security police, who are believed to be behind the death of 474 Egyptians in 2015 alone.
But Regeni’s case stands out amid the catalogue of horrors: his murder is the first time such an act has happened to a foreign academic researcher working in Cairo, the kind of person who could have expected to be harassed or even deported for his work, but who would have been considered physically “protected” by his passport.
Senior officials in Italy have not directly pointed a finger of blame at Egypt. Nor have they shied away from the suggestion that the Egyptian state needs to answer for the crime.
Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, has said Italy would not settle for “a convenient truth”. “Because we are friends [with Egypt] we want those really responsible, their names and surnames. If someone thinks that in the name of political correctness we can settle for a patchy truth, we are Italy … the truth for Giulio is not an option or a luxury,” he said.
It is a demand that has also been made by Paolo Gentiloni, the foreign minister, who has called for “full and total collaboration on the part of the Egyptian authorities” in the investigation. Italy has sent its own team of investigators to work on the case, but there are indications that their access has been limited, including the fact that Italians were not present at the original autopsy in Cairo.
In Italy, newspaper reports speculate about why Regeni was killed, including theories that have examined the sensitive research he was conducting into labour unions in Egypt, the contacts he was making, and even the journalism he did on the side – using a pseudonym – for a communist newspaper in Italy called Il Manifesto that was critical of the Egyptian government.
His family has categorically denied the suggestion in Italian press reports that Regeni may have worked for Italian intelligence.
Experts remain confounded by the circumstances of his death. Was it the result of a bizarre and careless mistake of a lowly henchman? Was Regeni caught up in a roundup of people who were considered generally suspicious? Or was he specifically targeted? And if so, why?
Raffaele Marchetti, professor of international relations at Luiss University in Rome, said the details that have emerged so far point obviously to the involvement of intelligence or security services, but that it was difficult to understand why an Italian citizen would be targeted, given the uproar it would obviously cause.
It pointed to a “blatant mistake” or even possible fractures within the security services under the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who was swept into power following the 2013 coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected president.
Marina Calculli, a Fulbright scholar at the George Washington University who has worked as a researcher in Egypt and Syria, said that whether the murder was carried out by the Egyptian regime or not, the government was still culpable “because this could not happen in a context when you do not every day have extrajudicial killings”.
“The case of Giulio is strange because he was [apparently] in detention for days,” Calculli said. “It could be that somehow he was taken and detained and tortured in this kind of anti-foreigner, anti-researcher hysteria and perhaps they crossed a line and could not come back.
“You cannot just release a foreigner that has been tortured, because you are exposing to the world what you are doing inside your prisons.”
The case has become a diplomatic problem between two countries with deep economic, business, and defence ties. But there is no evidence that – beyond some rhetoric – Italy is prepared to put real pressure on Egypt. Regeni may have been a target because of his contacts with activists. Photograph: Twitter
Regeni’s body was found as Italy’s economic development minister, Federica Guidi, was in Cairo with a delegation of Italian business leaders, including the heads of Italian energy companies. The delegation was abruptly cut short after Regeni was found.
The most important business relationship centres on Italy’s state-backed energy group Eni, which last year announced the discovery of a giant natural gas field in Egypt. Eni has announced a development plan for the site, boasting that the deal would help satisfy Egypt’s natural gas demand for decades.
Perhaps more importantly, Italy would rely on Egypt’s political support in the event of a possible military intervention in Libya.
People inside the Egyptian foreign ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity nevertheless described the Italians as “out for blood … they want someone specific named and shamed”.
In Italy, questions about what happened have focused on why Regeni may have been seen as a threat. By all accounts, he was a gifted young man. He spoke five languages – Italian, English, Spanish, Arabic, and German – and was considered a fine writer and hard worker.
“His interests were wide: he was as much an expert on the Middle East as he was on Latin America. On the human level, he was warm, respectful, generous and kind. His abilities for communication made him a natural diplomat, a builder of bridges between cultures,” said his friend Paz Zarate. “I always thought his destiny was to be a well-known figure who would made his country proud.”
On the day that he went missing, he was reportedly on his way to meet a friend named Gennaro Gervasio, a lecturer in the department of political science at the British University in Cairo (BUE), at a restaurant near Tahrir Square. Gervasio declined to speak to the Guardian.
“Someone like him, speaking Arabic and talking about issues like this raises eyebrows – not that it should,” said lawyer Ragia Omran, of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights. “It’s this xenophobic atmosphere we’re living in. It’s horrible that people who come to visit get treated this way,” she added, referring to a growing climate of suspicion around foreign visitors in Egypt, often resulting in accusations of spying or stirring up anti-government sentiment.
A source at the American University in Cairo named three people who have studied labour relations in Egypt – a sensitive topic – and were subsequently detained, deported or barred from re-entering the country since 2011.
Activists last week hanged a banner on the AUC campus. It said: “Giulio’s murder is not an isolated incident. The AUC bubble will not protect you.”
According to the Giza public prosecutor’s office, the investigation into Regeni’s whereabouts began on 27 January, but according to Hossam El Nassar, assistant to the Giza public prosecutor’s office, Regeni’s apartment was not searched until about five days after his body was discovered.
The Egyptian investigation has so far been limited to questioning Regeni’s friends, in at least one case without the presence of a lawyer.
“The investigation leads to several possibilities including criminal activity or the desire for revenge due to personal reasons, especially as the Italian had many relationships with people near where he lives and where he studied,” the interior ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Giza public prosecutor Ahmed Nagy had earlier said the inquiry would focus on people Regeni knew in Egypt. “The investigations are still trying to find who he was dealing with while he was here, who his friends were while he was here, if he had personal problems with anyone, who he was last in contact with and who he last met with,” Nagy said.
Such investigations into Regeni’s life and personal relations have added to speculation that his contact with activists involved in the labour movement made him a target, and have also added to pressure on his close friends to avoid talking to the media, likely fearing for their own safety.
The ministry statement made no mention of the involvement of security forces as a possibility, and both Nagy and Nassar made clear that neither policemen nor security officials will likely be questioned as suspects in connection with Regeni’s disappearance and murder.
“Statements from the policemen and the security forces are going to happen, but it’s still not in that stage yet,” Nagy said. While he said the investigation was following leads from Regeni’s friends, “there is no set date as to when the next stage starts”.
“The questioning of any policemen will not be as suspects, but of their knowledge and enquiries about Regeni’s case,” said Nassar. He declined to comment on whether Regeni had been under surveillance prior to his death.
It is expected that the Egyptian security service will itself be tasked with drawing up a list of suspects, making it even less likely that a policemen or security official will even be questioned in the case.
“The security services are the ones who will say who did it,” said vice-minister of justice and forensics expert Shaaban el Shamy. “We send our reports to the investigators, the investigators work through the security apparatus and their investigations determine who did it. What we do is provide the technical evidence in the case.”
Shamy, like other officials, declined to respond directly to reports that Regeni was tortured.
“Homicide is different to other crimes – a thief has a certain way of stealing for example. There’s a thousand different ways to kill someone,” Shamy said, adding that the nature of the injuries will not be used to determine who could have committed the crime. “Some of the injuries sustained could show the nature of the crime but could never show who did it,” he said.
Civil society groups hold little hope that a fair investigation will be carried out. “[The case] will be investigated but it’s highly unlikely that the government will prosecute one of their own,” said Hussein Baoumi, of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.