Did Egyptian Secret Agents Torture Cambridge Student Giulio Regeni or Was He Set Up?
An Italian doctoral student was found dead near Cairo and several agents have been named as prime suspects. Investigators want to know if his Cambridge adviser may have set him up.
ROME—In a murder case shrouded in secrecy and steeped in sometimes outrageous conspiracy theories, one thing remains clear: Italian Ph.D. candidate Giulio Regeni died a slow and excruciating death. He was beaten, burned, and tortured for days before his mangled body was discarded like trash in a Cairo suburb in 2016.
Two of as many as seven Egyptian agents were named Thursday by Italian prosecutors Giuseppe Pignatone and Sergio Colaiocco as suspects in commissioning his murder, but it remains unclear exactly what they had to do with his heinous death. No one is yet named for actually carrying out the atrocity.
Official charges are expected to follow next week, which will allow greater investigative resources in the case here in Italy. But Egypt remains uncooperative in the investigations and Italy has limited jurisdiction and no access to do any real investigative work on the ground where the murder took place. The move to act alone by Italian prosecutors is likely a warning to Egypt. “This is the right decision, it is strong and courageous,” the president of Italy’s lower house, Roberto Fico, said Thursday, according to Reuters. “It is also necessary given that the Cairo prosecutor is not moving forward with this case.”
Regeni, who was conducting sensitive research on Egyptian trade unions and labor laws at the American University of Cairo for a Cambridge University doctoral program, was last seen Jan. 25, 2016. It was the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s Day of Revolt that eventually ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and a day that incoming President Abdel Fattah al Sisi had warned was best spent at home. By then, Regeni was on the Egyptian security forces’ radar, the Italian prosecutors say. His phone was bugged, and they questioned everyone he interviewed for his research in what amounted to “systematic paranoia by the Egyptian state,” according to the Italian investigators.
Egyptian labor unions were and remain the biggest threat to Al Sisi's government, and Regeni, who was reportedly sending his research findings to his Egyptian adviser in England while penning a provocative pro-labor blog under a pseudonym in Italy, seemed oblivious to the fact that he was treading in increasingly dangerous waters. A friend turned foe, Mohammed Abdallah, who was a journalist-cum-spy and head of the Cairo street-vendors association, was extremely helpful to Regeni, introducing him to various sources and helping him navigate the labyrinth of Egyptian labor unions. What Regeni didn’t know was that Abdallah was actually reporting everything Regeni said and did to Egypt’s national-security agency and secret-service agents, according to Italy’s interior ministry, which has issued a report on the investigation.
Officially, Regeni’s cover story for the night he disappeared was that he planned to meet a friend before attending a quiet birthday party at a research assistant’s home. After his murder, close friends revealed to Italian investigators that he was likely really on his way to attend an underground event to commemorate the Day of Revolt in order to gather covert research material—a meeting that Abdallah likely helped him set up.
He never made it to either engagement. His phone rang dead about an hour after he left his apartment.
Regeni’s case has become a contentious issue in Italy, where graphic details of his torture feature almost daily in the press. Books have been written, documentaries aired and signs with “Truth and Justice for Giulio Regeni” hang in windows across the country. The constantly changing accounts of the grisly crime provided by al Sisi’s government are analogous to the clumsy cover ups of the Jamal Khashoggi case. Al Sisi, a Saudi client, would appear to share the belief that real strongmen can kill who they please, how they please, without consequences.
When his body was found in a ditch some 10 days after he went missing, the severity of the wounds left by his torturers shocked even the most hardened investigators. He was naked from the waist down with tiny, round burn marks on his testicles and penis from hot electrocution wires. His wrists and ankles were broken, but not his arms and legs, which made it impossible for him to escape even if he thought he felt he had the strength to do so.
He had bruises on the soles of his feet and palms of his hands. His fingernails and toenails had been removed with a razor-sharp implement while he was still alive, according to Italian coroners who examined his body weeks later, who pointed to the subtle regrowth of his nail bed that could have only happened before he died. The same sharp instrument was likely used to slice off the top of one of his ears, though, given the jagged cut, was likely to have been cut off slowly, over a period of days.
Seven of his ribs were broken, the coroners say, but not all at once. His torso was covered with tiny, random razor-blade cuts and dotted with deep cigarette burns that seemed as if they had been held against his skin until they extinguished. He had a brain hemorrhage, but the blow to his head with a blunt instrument is not what killed him. Italian coroners instead say the most likely cause of his death was the slow twisting of his neck until it broke while he sat tied to a chair—a hypothesis based on the stress wounds on what was left of his limbs.
When his body was found in the ditch, Egyptian security forces first reported it as a car accident, implying that he had been thrown out of a vehicle. But perhaps realizing how ludicrous that seemed based on the obvious torture he had been through, they soon said that it was a “homosexual attack,” though Italian coroners disputed this claim based on a thorough autopsy examination that did not find evidence that he was raped. Eventually, Egypt settled on a theory that Regeni was surely part of an antiquities smuggling ring, no doubt due to his Italian heritage. They even named five assassins, who they said were “posing as Egyptian security agents,” though the five men were mysteriously gunned down in March 2016. Regeni’s Italian passport and credit card, along with his Cambridge and American University of Cairo IDs, were mysteriously recovered at the apartment of one of the dead men’s relative’s homes.
Regeni’s mother, Paola Deffendi, had to wait until her only son’s body was released to Italy to identify what was left of it. She said she could only recognize the “tip of his nose,” which was uniquely angled, and something she loved to nuzzle when he was a small child. The rest of her son, she said, was the work of barbarians.
“I can’t tell you what they had done to him," she told The Daily Beast in 2016. “I saw all the evil of the world on his body. I recognized him just by the tip of his nose. The rest of him was no longer Giulio.”
Almost immediately after the discovery of his mangled remains, Italian authorities pointed to Egyptian secret agents as the likely assassins, though it took three long years and 10 visits by Italian investigators to Cairo to officially accuse them and, it seems, only after talks failed to reach an agreement about the direction of the investigation last week. Cairo remains adamant that their agents are not involved. Rome remains just as convinced that they are.
During the last three years, Italian investigators have met a series of roadblocks. Crucial CCTV tape that could have showed Regeni’s last movements was mysteriously erased and his Egyptian phone records listing calls have not been made available to the Italian investigators.
Italians surmised at the time, and continue to believe, that, based on the type of torture inflicted on Regeni meant to extract confessions, the Egyptians likely thought he was a spy of some sort.
The severity of the young scholar’s wounds would imply that he simply wasn’t, so their increasingly intense torture was in vain because he had no secrets to tell. Or, from the Egyptian point of view, that he was a masterful spy who could resist all temptation to talk.
In 2017, an anonymous source allegedly privy to what was described as 48 hours of intense torture told an Italian television program that sympathetic doctors were even called in during Regeni’s interrogation, and they concluded that the young man was “faking his pain” and that the incessant torture should continue.
When Egypt denied such claims of intense interrogation, Rome called back its ambassador, who was only returned in October of this year as part of a last-ditch effort to collaborate. When Egypt continued to stall, the Italians looked like they might give up, too, until Regeni’s mother says she threatened to release the photos of her son’s broken body to the press to underscore Italian indifference.
Complicating matters more, Cambridge, which commissioned Regeni’s research in Cairo, has remained curiously silent about the torture and murder of one of their top Egypt scholars. Numerous calls to the university by The Daily Beast over the last three years yielded the same response, that the investigation is being conducted by Italian authorities and all inquiries should go there.
Regeni’s Ph.D. adviser, an Egyptian professor named Maha Mahfouz Abdelrahman, had gone on sudden sabbatical shortly after Regeni was killed. La Repubblica correspondents tracked her down in the U.K. and reported a curious exchange with her last November, not long after she returned to work, and shortly before she was subpoenaed to testify in Regeni’s murder investigation in Rome—a call she has still not heeded.
“The sabbatical acted as the formal circumstance for her to repeatedly excuse herself from appearing as witness at the inquest into Giulio’s murder, as requested by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rome,” the reporters who visited her surmised.
Regeni’s Cambridge professor is now one of the key focal points in establishing motive in the murder inquiry allegedly carried out by the seven Egyptian agents, either for intentionally or unintentionally leading the young Ph.D. student down a dangerous path that took him straight into harm’s way.
The Italian prosecutor leading the investigation, Sergio Colaiocco, who named the seven Egyptian secret-service agents this week, also listed five areas of concern relating to Regeni’s research that can only be answered by his adviser, who has yet to give testimony.
The first, according to records seen by The Daily Beast, deals with who chose the specific theme of Regeni’s research and who chose the tutor who would accompany him as he worked in Cairo. The inquiry also questions who wrote Regeni’s “participatory research” study method and who devised the interview questions that were posed to his subjects, clearly implying that it was the adviser, not the student.
But most important to this inquiry, according to Roman prosecutors, is whether Regeni submitted the initial results of his research to his adviser when she flew to meet him in Cairo in Jan. 7, just weeks before he was killed, and who else she might have met while she was there.
Regeni’s family has expressed what they call “sorrow and disappointment for the refusal of his Cambridge tutors to answer Italian prosecutors’ questions on the case,” asking that they respond to questions “without omerta,” referring to the mafia-style vow of complicit silence.
“We entrusted our son Giulio to the university community of Cambridge and we expected the utmost, concrete solidarity from this community, and therefore total collaboration in the search for the truth on his kidnapping and terrible murder in Cairo while he was doing research work for the university,” the Regini family said in a statement released by their lawyers.
Now that Italy has named its primary suspects and tightened the ring around Regeni’s Cambridge adviser, it may seem logical that justice may soon be delivered for the scholar’s still-grieving family. But in a case that has never followed the standard rules, justice seems highly unlikely.