The Third Assize Court of Rome returned to the courtroom at 8:45 p.m. Thursday, after almost six hours of council chamber deliberations. Half an hour later (due to a blackout), the decision was delivered: the trial for the kidnapping, torture and murder of Giulio Regeni would be suspended. The case file would return to the preliminary hearing judge, which last May had ruled to proceed to trial. That ruling was declared null and void, as requested by the defense.
“It’s just a setback,” was the first comment of the lawyer of the Regeni family, Alessandra Ballerini. “We demand that those who tortured and killed Giulio don’t go unpunished. I’m asking all of you: always repeat the names of those accused, so they cannot say that they did not know.” Then she read out their names, their dates of birth and their military IDs, at the end of a very long day.
It was just after 9 a.m. when Paola Deffendi and Claudio Regeni, together with Giulio’s sister Irene, arrived in front of the entrance to the bunker-like building in Rebibbia. The sun was shining on Rome, the promise of a long-awaited October day. The family passed the security checks and entered, surrounded by photographers. Shortly after, the vice president of Emilia Romagna, Elly Schlein, arrived. Also in the courtroom were Senator De Falco, Ascanio Celestini and Erri De Luca.
The court had been called to rule on the declaration of absence of the four Egyptians accused for the kidnapping of Giulio Regeni. One of them is also charged with conspiracy to commit personal injury and aggravated murder. Shortly after 10 o’clock, the judges made their entrance in a courtroom swarming with journalists. Along the walls were the empty cells of the previous maxi-trials.
There were the state’s lawyers for the Prime Minister’s Office, which took up the role of party in the civil proceedings. And there were the public defenders of the four absent defendants: General Sabir Tariq, Colonels Usham Helmi and Athar Kamel and Major Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif.
The reason for the hearing was to establish whether they were absent because they were unaware that a trial was ready to start, or because, according to Article 420bis of the Code of Criminal Procedure, they were voluntarily evading it.
The reason for this situation was the inability to notify the four former agents of the Egyptian National Security Agency (NSA) of their inclusion in the register of suspects and of their indictment. The reason: in spite of letters rogatory and diplomatic pressures, Egypt has never responded to the request to elect their domicile.
According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rome, this was done in order to make them evade trial. Prosecutor Colaiocco explained the reasons why the court should allow the trial to proceed: “The four defendants know perfectly well that this proceeding was opened today and that they are being accused of kidnapping, injuries and murder. They are pretend-unaware,” he says, citing the expression coined by the Supreme Court.
Colaiocco quoted Judge Balestrieri, who opened the trial: they cannot fail to know, because the media coverage of the event has been global, because as NSA agents they have been heard as witnesses, because they have been directly involved in the Egyptian investigation and because the request to elect domicile has been made at every level, judicial, political and diplomatic.
This thesis was supported by the family, which was a civil party. Ballerini recounted the moves made to pressure them: the arrest in Cairo of the Regenis’ consultant, Ahmed Abdallah, and of Amal Fathy, activist and wife of the family’s lawyer, Mohammed Lofty: “Giulio died because someone decided he had to die. Five of his teeth were broken, 15 bones were broken, letters were etched into his body. It was done in a place that could only belong to the NSA, because the torture was perpetrated with the instruments fit for the purpose.”
The public defenders of the four Egyptians were the last to speak. They did not go into the merits of the evidence against them, as this was not the place to do so, but they asked for the decision to proceed to trial to be annulled: “We expected the proceedings to be suspended, as happens in such cases,” said Ticconi, Sharif’s lawyer, citing European precedents and Italian law. “One cannot proceed against defendants that cannot be located. It violates the right to cross-examination.”
It is not possible to state with certainty that the four are aware of the proceedings, nor that they engaged in “omissive behavior, such as refusing to provide the domicile or communicating a wrong domicile,” adds Tariq’s lawyer, Armellin.
“There was no omissive behavior by the defendants,” says lawyer Pollastro (Helmi), “but by the Egyptian authorities. The media diffusion of a fact is not enough” to become aware of it. All the more so, concludes lawyer Sarno (Kamel), due to the fact that Egyptian newspapers would not have reported the news: “We want justice. But there is no legal basis. Without Egyptian collaboration, this process cannot be done.”