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Will Italy’s charges against Egypt shed light on state-run disappearances?

By Stephanie al-Hakim
Posted on Monday, 21 December 2020 15:37, updated on Monday, 4 January 2021 18:57

International activists stage a flash mob asking for truth on the death in Egypt of Italian student Giulio Regeni, in front of Milan's city hall, Italy in April 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, file)

Nearly five years later, the Italian public prosecution is officially charging four officers from Egypt's security services, including a general, in the “aggravated kidnapping”, torture and murder of Giulio Regeni. The Italian doctoral student from Cambridge University was researching trade unions in Egypt when he was found killed in 2016. Will this have any impact on the institutionalised culture of disappearances in the country?

“There are a lot of Egyptians who die after being subjected to questioning and had the exact same fate as Giulio when their bodies were found. What’s different with Giulio is that he is Italian, so his judiciary and government were obliged to investigate his killing, which is never the case when Egyptians disappear”, Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), a non governmental rights group, tells The Africa Report. Two lawyers from 1413 have power of attorney by the Regeni family to represent Giulio in the case.

“Most of the times victims reappear after being tortured and are presented to state security prosecution, often on terrorism charges but denied lawyers, and face up to two years in pre-trial detention,” adds Lotfy. Egyptian prisons are notoriously overwhelmed with inmates and lacking basic equipment, and definitely not conducive to protecting prisoners during the current COVID pandemic.

Italy completes its investigation

“We believe we have gathered significant evidence,” said Rome prosecutor Michele Prestipino at a hearing before the parliamentary committee handling the case.  Regeni’s mutilated body was found thrown in the outskirts of Cairo and was clearly a victim of torture in February 2016.

Since then, both Italian and Egyptian judges have led separate investigations into the death of the 28 year-old doctoral student. But the results of the two investigations took different turns.

READ MORE Italian lawmakers defy Egypt’s Al-Sisi

Italian prosecutors concluded that they had sufficient evidence to charge four Egyptian security officials and have given the men 20 days as of 10 December to respond to the charges. Afterwards, an Italian judge will be asked to indict them.

The suspects involved in the case have also been named by the Italian prosecution:

  • Major Sherif Magdy, from General Intelligence
  • Major General Tarek Sabir, the former head of state security
  • Police Colonel Hisham Helmy
  • Colonel Ather Kamal, a former head of investigations in the Cairo municipality

Egyptian authorities have yet to comment to the charges.

From Egypt’s side, officials have repeatedly denied any involvement in his killing, and remained adamant that the killers could not be identified due to a lack of evidence collected by their Italian counterparts. The joint investigation with Egyptian prosecutors was temporarily closed by authorities, without an explanation, following a meeting between the two prosecution offices.

READ MORE Egypt: Mahmoud al-Sisi, cut from the same cloth as his father

But Italy carried on with its own investigation of the murder case, culminating in formal charges. Italian prosecutors have also accused Egypt of trying to mislead the investigation. The investigation has sparked  diplomatic tension between the two countries.

Following conclusions from the Italian investigation, Prime minister Giuseppe Conte said the story: “Makes us grieve, but now a trial by our judicial authorities will begin; a true, serious and credible trial. This trial is the instrument to reach the truth, which unfortunately is expected to be shocking” adding that “Egypt must and can do much more”.

Growing number of enforced disappearances

To date, Egypt has 2700 cases of enforced disappearances between August 2015 and August 2020.

“Basically enforced disappearances is a phenomenon that is committed on a regular basis against political opposition, independent journalists, anybody who could be critical of the government – even political parties recognised by law – and they are all subjected to a period of enforced disappearance that could endure for months” says Lotfy.

In fact, from June 2013 to October 2020, the Committee of Justice ( a Swiss-based independent association for the defense of human rights) said some 1,058 people were killed in the detention centres. In 2020 alone, the number of deaths increased by 100 cases compared to a decline in 2019, according to a recent report issued by the CFJ.

Of the 1058 killed, 761, or 71.9%, were caused by denial of health care. Death from torture accounted for 144, or 13.5% of cases, and 67, or 6% died from suicide. Poor detention conditions killed some 57, or 5%.

“The bottom line is that no one is safe in Egypt, and that there is no accountability to crimes committed by state officials. There is an Egyptian proverb that says: ‘Those who fear no punishment will misbehave’. In the case of Regeni’s brutal killing, the Italian and Egyptian regimes still have diplomatic relations and arms deals, while regional interests always prevail over human rights, and [President Abdelfattah] al-Sisi knows this well” says Ahmed Mefreh, director of the CFJ.

If you want someone to disappear, never to see them again, you send them to Egypt.

“This trial taking place in Italy will allow us to look into how deep the machinery of disappearance, torture and death runs in Egypt”, adds Lotfy.

No one to enforce accountability

But until that box is cracked open, the Egyptian state continues to exercise an iron fist freely while denying any violations of human rights.

Following news that France’s President Emmanuel Macron had bestowed its highest honour to Sisi during a recent visit in December, the legion of honour, Corrado Augias, a long time Italian journalist and Giovanna Melandri, a former culture minister, both returned their respective medals in protest.

READ MORE France & Egypt: Sisi and Macron’s exceptional relationship

“My opinion is that President Macron should not have granted the Legion of Honor to a head of state who has objectively made himself an accomplice of heinous criminals. I say this for the memory of the unfortunate Giulio Regeni, but also for France, for the importance that this award still represents more than two centuries after its institution” said Augias.

“The Egyptian regime has succeeded in using issues such as investments, refugees, terrorism, and the Libyan conflict to thwart all foreign attempts to ameliorate the human rights conditions. In light of the absence of such pressures by the European Union and the White House, the Sisi regime has been given a green light to carry on with its repression” says Mefreh.

As former CIA officer to the Middle-East, Robert Baer once said: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear, never to see them again, you send them to Egypt”.

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