Italy to Charge Egyptian Security Officials in Student’s Kidnapping, Murder

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Italy to Charge Egyptian Security Officials in Student’s Kidnapping, Murder

Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student in Egypt, was found dead outside Cairo several days after his disappearance in 2016.

Photo: Ropi/Zuma Press

ROME—Italian prosecutors said they plan to charge an Egyptian security official with murder and three others with kidnapping in the killing of an Italian graduate student whose torture and death in 2016 became a global symbol of human-rights abuses committed by the Egyptian government.

The announcement intensifies pressure on Egypt over a killing that soured relations with Italy and sparked international outrage that damaged the image of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, a former general who came to power in a coup in 2013.

Prosecutors said they would formally seek trial after giving the accused 20 days to present any new evidence. The pending charges over the death of doctoral student Giulio Regeni are also the first time that members of Egypt’s powerful National Security Agency have been officially accused of torture, killing and other abuses that human-rights groups say have been committed on a vast scale in the country in recent years.

“Giulio shed a light on Egypt, on what Egypt is really like,” Mr. Regeni’s mother, Paola Deffendi, said after Thursday’s announcement. “Now everybody can see what Egypt’s dictatorship is like. Giulio is like a mirror that shows to the whole world that human rights are being violated in Egypt every day.”

The prosecutors said three suspects—Tariq Sabir, Usham Helmi and Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim—are accused of kidnapping. A fourth suspect, Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif, is accused of kidnapping, murder and causing grievous bodily harm.

The prosecutors dropped the case against a fifth suspect, citing insufficient evidence. Italian prosecutors identified three of the accused as members of Egypt’s National Security Agency, and one as a member of the police force.

People held a memorial in 2019 for Mr. Regeni in Fiumicello, Italy, on the anniversary of his disappearance.

Photo: alice rita fumis/Shutterstock

“We hope this would send a message to the security forces in Egypt that they are not immune, that they can and will be held accountable for the crimes they are committing,” said Hussein Baoumi, a researcher on Egypt at Amnesty International.

The trial, however, is unlikely to lead to the arrest of the four accused. It may take years for the trial to end. Italy could formally request the extradition of the four Egyptian security officials, but Egypt is unlikely to grant it, legal experts say.

Italian prosecutors said Egyptian judicial authorities largely stopped collaborating with them after they were informed that five Egyptian security officials were being placed under investigation in Italy in connection with the killing in late 2018.

Egypt’s government has offered varying explanations for the murder, including blaming it on common criminals, but Egyptian prosecutors haven’t indicted anyone for the murder. An Egyptian government spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on the accusations by prosecutors in Rome.

Mr. Regeni, who was 28 at the time of his death, 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.

Several days after his disappearance, Mr. Regeni’s body was found on the side of a highway outside Cairo bearing cigarette burns, stab wounds, broken bones, bruises and other marks that autopsies identified as signs of torture.

Italian prosecutors said Mr. Regeni had been under surveillance by the Egyptian state before his murder. On Thursday, they offered new evidence of the involvement of Egyptian security officials in the killing.

Citing a witness account, prosecutors said that for several days before his death Mr. Regeni was held and tortured inside the compound of Egypt’s Ministry of Interior in downtown Cairo, in a National Security Agency building.

Egypt is also facing renewed international scrutiny of its human-rights record as President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to hold Mr. Sisi to account for alleged abuses.

Last week, Egyptian authorities released three human-rights advocates after their arrest provoked an international outcry that included a statement of concern from Mr. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state.

The accusations could also raise tensions within Europe over policy on Egypt. Mr. Sisi visited France this week, where he was awarded the Légion d’honneur, the country’s highest civic honor. President Emmanuel Macron said he discussed concerns about political prisoners with Mr. Sisi but refused to place conditions on military sales to Egypt in order to pressure it on human rights.

The killing sparked a diplomatic crisis with Italy, resulting in Rome recalling its ambassador from Egypt later in 2016 out of frustration with a lack of progress in the investigation into Mr. Regeni’s death. Italy returned its ambassador to Cairo in 2017, saying the envoy would work as a liaison to Egyptian investigators.

Egyptian authorities have offered shifting explanations for the killing. In March 2016, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said its officers shot dead four members of an alleged gang that kidnapped and robbed foreigners in Egypt, and that Mr. Regeni’s belongings had been found in the group’s possession. Egyptian prosecutors later said the group wasn’t involved in the killing of the student.

Egyptian prosecutors closed their investigation this month without charging anyone. Announcing the end of the investigation, prosecutors once again said they had found evidence that the alleged gang that targeted foreigners was responsible for the murder.

Mr. Regeni’s killing became a symbol of a pattern of torture, abduction and extrajudicial killings carried out by the Egyptian security forces in recent years, which has been documented by human-rights groups and foreign governments.

Egypt’s government has jailed thousands in a clampdown on political opponents since the protest-backed military coup that brought Mr. Sisi to power. Human-rights groups say that torture is widespread, and security forces have carried out hundreds of summary killings, according to the families of victims and Western security officials.

The government has charged many of the detainees swept up in the crackdown with terrorism and said that the arrests and other measures are part of a fight against extremists.

Egyptian security forces abducted some 2,700 people between 2015 and 2020, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a human-rights group based in Cairo.

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com and Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com

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