Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No easy conclusions

Investigations into the murder of Giulio Regeni are continuing despite the Ministry of Interior saying it recovered the Italian PhD student’s personal belongings in an apartment connected to a gang with a history of kidnapping foreigners, reports Ahmed Morsy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Thursday 24 March the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that security forces had “succeeded in targeting” a five-member criminal gang, all of whom were killed in an exchange of gunfire with police during their attempted arrest in New Cairo.

The gang, said the Interior Ministry, specialised in “impersonating policemen” to kidnap and rob foreign residents in Egypt.

The Interior Ministry went on to say that items belonging to slain Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni were found in the home of the sister of one of the gang members who died in the shootout. It concluded its statement by thanking the Italian investigative team working on the Regeni case in Egypt for “its efforts and cooperation”.

Local media outlets immediately began quoting anonymous security sources who claimed that the gang was linked to the murder of Regeni. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, remained silent, neither confirming nor denying the alleged links. When the general prosecution waded in to deny any connection between the gang and Regeni, the Interior Ministry issued another statement — it was late on Thursday by this time — that appeared to support the claims reportedly made by the anonymous security sources.

The statement said the dead gang members were “highly dangerous criminals wanted in different cases” and had been killed in an exchange of gunfire as they were travelling in a minibus in the Fifth Settlement district of New Cairo.

The gang, according to the statement, was responsible for “the theft of more than $20,000 and LE175,100 from nine Egyptians and foreigners”, including an Italian citizen named “David K” and a Portuguese citizen named “Carlos M”. Full names for those who had been robbed were not given.

The gang’s members were said to have been armed with an automatic rifle, a gun and a taser. Forged police identity cards were found in the minibus. While the statement did not include Regeni among the gang’s victims it repeated the earlier claim that security forces had found Regeni’s belongings during the raid of the apartment of a sister of one of the gang members in Al-Qalyubia governorate.

Two days later, on Saturday, the Interior Ministry appeared to retreat from suggestions that the perpetrators of Regeni’s gruesome murder had been killed. On Sunday Italian officials announced in a statement, “The Egyptians changed tack in a few hours and have agreed to extend the investigations after pressure from Rome”. The Interior Ministry’s response was to deny that it had changed its position under Italian pressure. It did, however, confirm that the now two month-long investigation into Regeni’s murder is continuing.

The woman in whose apartment the Interior Ministry says it found Regeni’s belongings, including his passport, is now in custody, accused of hiding a fugitive and possessing stolen goods. She and two other family members are reported to have confessed to her brother’s crimes, including the theft of the personal items belonging to Regeni.

“A red duffel bag was found, including a brown wallet, the passport of Regeni, his Cambridge University and American University ID cards, and a visa card,” said the Ministry of Interior. It added that the bag also contained “LE5,000, three sunglasses, a female wristwatch and a brownish stuff that looked like hashish”.

The ministry’s statements were greeted with scepticism by social media users. Journalist Mohamed Al-Garhi asked how these supposedly dangerous and known criminals had been left free to operate. He also pointed out, “The police say the crimes the gang committed — including the nine robberies — were all in Nasr City and New Cairo, far from Dokki where Regeni was last seen before he disappeared.”

Regeni, 28, a PhD student at Cambridge University in the UK and affiliated with the American University in Cairo, was in Egypt to research trade unions and labour movements. He was reported missing on the fifth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution. His mutilated and half-naked body was found on 3 February on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road.

Italian responses to the Interior Ministry’s statements were led by the Italian investigative team in Egypt who pointed to “inconsistencies” in the information they contained.

“The case is far from closed,” Italian news agency ANSA quoted the Italian investigators as saying. The Italian team pointed out that the alleged kidnappers are unlikely to have tortured their victim for a week if their only purpose was to obtain a ransom. They also said it was incredible that all members of the alleged gang had been killed.

The Italian government insisted it was still monitoring investigations into Regeni’s torture and death.

Giuseppe Pignatone, Rome’s chief prosecutor, said new evidence supplied by Egyptian authorities “didn’t prove anything”. Pignatone issued a statement saying that the evidence provided by the Egyptian authorities to Italian investigators did not “identify those responsible for the murder”.

Pia Locatelli, head of the Italian parliament’s Human Rights Committee, cast further doubt on the Ministry of Interior’s narrative, saying that Regeni had been subjected to torture by trained personnel.

In its initial report into Regeni’s murder, Egypt’s Forensic Medicine Authority said the cause of death was blunt force trauma delivered by a sharp object to the back of the head, causing a cranial fracture and severe intracranial haemorrhaging. It also noted signs of torture on the body, including cigarette burns, bruises and cuts. The authority’s final autopsy report on Regini was sent to the prosecutor-general’s office on 14 February.

An autopsy conducted following the body’s repatriation to Rome revealed what Italy’s Minister of Interior Angelino Alfano called “inhuman, animal-like” violence. Italian news agency ANSA quoted unidentified sources close to the Italian coroners saying: “The findings showed that Regeni’s neck was twisted, the vertebrae broken and he was left unable to breathe.” They also reported that the Italian student had fractures all over his body.

Regini’s parents demanded the truth from Egyptian authorities on Tuesday about his death. In the family’s first public remarks on the case, Giulio Regeni’s mother, Paola, said they might release a photograph of her son’s body if authorities did not make progress on his murder investigation.

“The image that fills me with pain is that of his face as it was given back to me by Egypt,” she said. “What they didn’t do to that face ... I only recognised him by the tip of his nose. As for everything else, it was not our Giulio.”

“It is important that in the face of our emphasis on the quest for truth, the Egyptians changed tack in a few hours and told us that their investigations are continuing,” Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

“I repeat to Giulio’s parents and to the Italian public that the Italian government will get the name of the murderers.”

He continued, “Our investigators should be directly involved, participating in questioning and evidence gathering ... Our input is essential,” Afano said on Sunday.

Two weeks ago Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told ANSA, “Until now, cooperation has been insufficient.” He added that he hoped a meeting between Pignatone and his Egyptian counterpart would lay the ground “for a more intense and satisfying collaboration”.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Abu Bakr Abdul Karim denies that the ministry has backtracked on its position, or even ever accused the now-dead gang of murdering Regeni. In a telephone interview with Dream TV he said police had targeted the gang because of its involvement in a series of robberies of foreigners living in Egypt.

The discovery of Regeni’s belongings, he said, will now facilitate investigations and lead to the real perpetrators.

On Sunday, Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar complained that the case had become “very difficult” because of “hostile press campaigns” that consistently raise doubts about the Interior Ministry’s handling of the investigation.

Similar complaints were raised in an Interior Ministry statement released on 24 February. It said the results of the investigation were being pre-empted by foreign newspapers “jumping to conclusions and circulating rumours without any evidence”.

On 11 February the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that a Cairo street vendor had told Italian detectives he witnessed plain-clothed police officers detaining a foreigner on 25 January outside the metro station close to the Regeni’s flat in Dokki. The account first surfaced in the New York Times, which ran a story claiming “three Egyptian security officials who said they had inquired about the case said that Regeni had been taken into custody by the authorities because he had been impertinent with the officers. ‘He was very rude and acted like a tough guy,’ one of the officials said.”

The newspaper added that the three officials, who were interviewed separately, said that Regeni had “drawn suspicions because of contacts on his phone that the officials said included people associated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the leftist April 6 Youth Movement”. Corriere della Sera later appeared to backtrack, reporting on 14 February: “The witnesses tracked down by the US newspaper do not appear to be fully credible.”

The Italian edition of the news website The Local reported in the first week of February, “Italian media are now pointing fingers at the Egyptian security services,” with many papers saying the autopsy results show “signs of torture which suggest that his killers believed Regeni was a spy.” The Italian daily La Stampa was more explicit, reporting on the case under the headline “Egyptian Police Accused.”

Egypt’s interior and foreign ministers have repeatedly dismissed any suggestion that the security forces were behind Regeni’s murder. Human rights groups in Egypt accuse the Interior Ministry of widespread abuses, allegations it denies.

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