The noose continues to be tightened around the necks of human rights defenders in Egypt. Sept. 21 was another dramatic day, marked by a raid at the headquarters of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), which is among the groups monitoring Giulio Regeni’s case on behalf of his family.
The state investment authority visited the headquarters of the organization, accompanied by National Security agents and a police van, and threatened to seal the doors. The staff attorneys in the office argued back and managed to ward off closure, pointing out that the organization is legally registered as a law firm and did not violate any law. (Many human rights organizations in Egypt do not seek NGO status to avoid the heavy restrictions imposed.) Back in October 2016, the organization suffered a similar episode, when agents executed warrants to search the file folders of disappeared Egyptians.
“It is no coincidence that the ECRF was planning to meet with Giulio Regeni’s family, to continue to assist in the investigations into Regeni’s forced disappearance and murder in 2016,” says a statement from the commission, which also spoke on behalf of Regeni’s parents Paola and Claudio.
A few weeks ago, the organization had released a report documenting 378 cases of forced disappearance between August 2016 and August 2017, accusing the security forces as chiefly responsible for these incidents. The ECRF website has been blocked in Egypt since Sept. 5.
“They are burning the ground around the Regeni family,” says Maaty el-Sandouby, an Egyptian journalist living in Italy and co-founder of the association for families of the disappeared. “So when the Regenis go to Egypt, there will be no one willing to help them.”
Also on Thursday, news broke that the lawyer Ibrahim Metwally was being tortured in jail. Arrested on Sept. 10 at the Cairo airport, Metwally is coordinator of the Association of families victims of forced disappearances, with which ECRF collaborates for legal advice. Since Sept. 14, he has been locked in the infamous Scorpion section of the Torah prison, with heavy accusations against him.
The torture was reported to the Italian news agency TPI by lawyer Mohamed Lotfy, a member of the ECRF. Lotfy also reported the court’s decision to renew Metwally’s detention for another 15 days. Metwally is reportedly in isolation, without electricity, in a cell full of garbage. He informed his lawyers he is kept naked in his cell and tortured with electric shocks.
Amnesty International launches an online petition for the immediate release of lawyer Ibrahim Metwally, available at www.amnesty.it.
Meanwhile, the Italian government not only maintains its embarrassing silence about these serious violations against Egyptian activists (that directly interfere with the investigation on the Regeni case), but continues toward normalizing diplomatic relations.
In fact, at the same time when the Egyptian security forces raided the offices of ECRF, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met at the 72nd session of the United Nations’ General Assembly. The debate reaffirmed the will of the two countries to “strengthen relations and cooperation at all levels” and the now common lip service about “the utmost commitment to the search for truth and the delivery of those responsible for justice” with regard to the Regeni case.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, the Egyptians delivered a completely different version to its Gulf allies. Pressured by other Arab countries to resolve the diplomatic impasse with Italy, some senior Egyptian officials replied that “Regeni was the guilty one, Cairo has done nothing wrong and the Italians are exaggerating the issue,” according to the Italian newspaper La Stampa.
If the reports are correct, this amounts almost to an admission of guilt if not of el-Sisi’s direct involvement, at least of the strong capacity of the Ministry of Interior Affairs to “influence, if not blackmail, the president himself.” It may also be further confirmation that the truth will never be revealed.
In further mockery, on Thursday, a memorandum of understanding between the Egyptian police academy and the Italian Ministry of Interior Affairs was signed to set up an international training center in Cairo, funded by Italy and the E.U. It will teach courses to police officers in African countries and will focus on border security, border management and the fight against illegal trafficking.