A court in Rome has begun trial proceedings against four Egyptian security officials accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering the Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo, including hours of deliberation over whether it is fair for the men to be tried in absentia.
The 28-year-old doctoral student went missing in Cairo on 25 January 2016 while researching Egypt’s unions. His body was discovered on an outlying Cairo highway nine days later, displaying signs of extreme torture and abuse.
Prosecutors argued fiercely that the four defendants, all current or former employees of Egypt’s National Security Agency, should be tried in absentia in Rome, after Egyptian authorities blocked efforts to officially notify the four men about trial proceedings.
“There has been a strategy from the National Security Agency of Egypt to keep the four defendants away from Italian jurisdiction and protect them,” said Sergio Colaiocco, head of the Rome prosecution.
Egyptian officials, the prosecutors said, ignored more than 30 official requests through diplomatic channels and years of repeated requests by the Italian prosecution to provide the men’s addresses, required to officially inform defendants of trials under Italian law.
Gen Tariq Saber, Col Aser Ibrahim, Capt Hesham Helmi, and Maj Magdi Abd al-Sharif are accused of the “aggravated kidnapping” of Regeni, who disappeared in January 2016 in Cairo while researching labour unions, a politically sensitive subject in the eyes of the Egyptian authorities. All four defendants face a sentence of up to eight years for kidnap, while Sharif could receive a life sentence for “conspiracy to commit aggravated murder”.
The Italian government officially joined the state prosecutor in support of the trial to prosecute the four Egyptian security officials the day before the hearing. Italy previously said it would seek to extradite anyone convicted during the trial proceedings. The trial caps years of diplomatic tension over the young researcher’s murder.
The initial hearing took place in a courtroom lined with cells, attached to a high-security facility built to try members of the mafia. Prosecutors argued strongly that Egyptian officials’ efforts to ignore a deluge of requests to inform the security officials about the trial followed years of efforts to misdirect the Italian authorities and prevent any investigation into the murder. Arguing that it was highly improbable that four members of the Egyptian security state would be unaware of legal proceedings against them, they said Egyptian authorities had deliberately sought to disrupt the trial by stonewalling repeated efforts to contact the men.
Italian prosecutors previously said they sought to indict 13 more people, but that silence from the Egyptian side stopped them from gathering sufficient evidence to do so. The trial represents a rare opportunity to seek accountability from Egypt’s powerful security services, who are accused by rights groups of human rights abuses.
“The Egyptian attitude has been like a wall, one that has not allowed us to investigate further,” said Francesco Romeo, a lawyer for the prosecution. “We are talking about authorities in a country that has tried in every way to misdirect Italian procedures to find the truth, a systematic organised way to avoid being involved in this whole story. This is illegal in Italy, to misdirect police investigations.”
A team of court-appointed lawyers representing each of the defendants argued that a trial in absentia was unjust, and that proceedings should be halted until Italy could guarantee the defendants had recognised the trial or officially refused to attend.
“It’s not the National Security Agency on trial. We should focus not on whether the NSA was informed [about proceedings], but if these four individuals had information and chose not to be here today voluntarily,” said Annalisa Ticconi, the defence lawyer for Sharif, during the hearing. She claimed that Italy risked European sanctions for its insistence on trying the men in absentia.
“Going on with this trial without ensuring these men are notified makes Italy no different from Egypt,” said one of the defence lawyers, Tranquillino Sarno. “Without collaboration of the Egyptian authorities this trial cannot be held … You are witnessing a trial against Egypt.”
Egypt closed its own investigation into Regeni’s murder in late 2020, claiming that the real killer is still unknown. Egypt’s public prosecutors attacked Rome’s investigation in a statement soon after, claiming that the Italian side lacked the evidence to convict the men, and rejecting any involvement by their security officials in Regeni’s disappearance or murder.
Prosecutors argued the Egyptian authorities claimed Regeni was a spy, attempting to frame his work and travels as politically suspect while tampering with vital video evidence and mobile phone data requested by the Italian side.
They outlined how Egypt impeded Italian efforts to investigate Regeni’s murder from the day his body was found on an outlying Cairo highway in 2016. Alessandra Ballerini, who represents the Regeni family, described his extensive injuries, including broken bones, broken teeth, and letters carved into his skin by his torturers.
One of the accused men, Aser Ibrahim, headed the investigation into Regeni’s murder from the Egyptian side. “So they actually investigated themselves,” said Colaiocco.
Ballerini described how she was detained by the NSA and questioned on arrival in Cairo in 2017 while working on the case, and how the Regeni family’s Egyptian legal team endured years of abuse due to their work, including detention and torture of their members.
She added that at one point, the pressure from inside Egypt to thwart the investigation was so intense that NSA officials asked the Egyptian legal team to refer their work to the NSA for inspection.
“They said they will not act as informants, and were told there will be repercussions against them and their families,” she said. “When they asked what that meant, they answered ‘ask Giulio’.”