In Depth

What happened to Giulio Regeni? Italy names suspects in Egypt murder

Tensions grow as Italian prosecutor identifies members of Egyptian security forces linked to killing of Cambridge student

The Italian government has named two members of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) as suspects in the alleged torture and murder of Italian-born Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni.

Regeni, 28, was conducting sensitive research into labour unions in Egypt when he went missing in Cairo on 25 January 2016. He was found dead by the side of a road outside the city eight days later, his body showing signs of extensive torture.

The Italian authorities knew that Regeni had been followed by NSA officers during his trip, but “were frustrated by a lack of collaboration from Cairo to identify them”, reports university newspaper Cambridge Varsity.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi initially said that his country was determined to conclude a joint investigation with Italy to bring the killers to justice. In 2016 the Egyptian authorities executed five men who were alleged to be members of a criminal gang linked to Regini’s murder.

However, Italy expressed doubts about the conviction of the men, who were later exculpated by Egypt’s public prosecutor.

Today’s announcement marks the first time that the Italian authorities have formally identified suspects in the case, and may severely damage diplomatic relations between the two countries.

What happened to Giulio Regeni?

“Intelligence and security sources told Reuters in 2016 that police had arrested Regeni outside a Cairo metro station on 25 January of that year and then transferred him to a compound run by homeland security,” Reuters reports.

Egyptian authorities have denied any involvement in his death.

The case has caused “intense diplomatic tension, not only because of the alleged involvement of the government [of Sisi], but because Egyptian authorities have failed to offer adequate assistance to Italian investigators”, says The Guardian.

In August, the newspaper printed a letter signed by more than 200 academics that said Regeni “was one of many students and academics who have been arrested, tortured, jailed and killed in recent years in Egypt”.

What has Egypt said?

Egypt’s initial response proved controversial. Despite rumours of government or police involvement, Egyptian investigators “declined to question the authorities”. They instead claimed in March 2016 that Egyptian police had confronted and shot dead the alleged gang members responsible for Regeni’s death.

Investigators said that the men had “specialised in impersonating policemen, kidnapping foreigners and stealing their money”, but offered no further details.

Few people outside Egypt were “buying it,” says The Economist. “Several questions remain unanswered, such as: why did the kidnappers keep Regeni’s belongings for weeks after killing him? Why would thieves torture him for days? And why were they not arrested instead of killed? No one expects the answers to come from Cairo.”

Months later, Egypt’s public prosecutor, Nabil Sadek, said that while the case was still under investigation, the link between the five men and Regeni’s death was weak.

CCTV footage from the metro station where Regeni was last seen has also proved highly significant in both the investigation and diplomatic relations between Italy and Egypt.

In the wake of Regeni’s death, Italian authorities demanded the CCTV tapes, but Egyptian investigators insisted the footage was “useless” and refused to hand it over for more than two years.

Upon their release to Italian investigators in June this year, authorities discovered that the tapes “contained unexplained gaps and no images of the Italian student”, The Guardian reports.

What has Italy said?

Reuters reports that two sources “with direct knowledge of the matter” have said that Italy was “increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of the investigation and had decided to press ahead unilaterally and register the names of the Egyptian suspects”.

Despite repeated denials by Egyptian officials of having any involvement in Regeni’s death, Italian officials have named two members of Egypt’s security forces under investigation - Major Sherif Magdy Abdel Aal and Osman Helmy. A further five suspects may be identified, according to Italian media.

As Reuters notes, being placed under official investigation in Italy does not imply guilt nor automatically lead to a trial. The two named men will be investigated initially over their role in the kidnapping of Regeni, the news agency reports.

“This is the right decision, it is strong and courageous. It is also necessary given that the Cairo prosecutor is not moving forward with this case,” the president of the lower house of the Italian parliament, Roberto Fico, told state broadcaster RAI.

What do Italian authorities believe?

The two security agents identified by Italian prosecutors are believed to have recruited Mohammed Abdullah, head of the Egyptian street vendors’ union, to spy on Regeni during his research.

Abdullah at one point filmed a meeting between him and Regeni, where he attempted to “coerce Regeni into providing him with funds for personal use”, Varsity adds. The film was aired on Egyptian television.

It appears that Abdullah may have mistaken Regeni for a spy, with the union boss telling HuffPost Arabi that he had handed Regeni over to security forces for “asking too many questions”, reports Italian news site La Repubblica.

“Yes, I reported him and I gave him to the Interior, and every good Egyptian, in my place, would have done the same,” Abdullah reportedly said.

“While Egypt is unlikely to surrender any suspects, Italy could try any defendants in absentia,” the news site adds.

Either way, the decision to publicly implicate Egypt’s security forces in the killing is a game changer, and may “raise tensions with Egypt”, says US-based site WMBF News.

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