On Jan. 25, 2016, in Cairo, an Italian student named Giulio Regeni was arrested, transferred to one or more detention centers while being denied all contact with the outside world, and in the following days subjected to savage torture and finally murdered. His name was added, sadly, to the long list of Egyptian men and women who have fallen victim to forced disappearances and were tortured to death in Egypt.
In the immediate aftermath, those from both Egypt and Italy who are familiar with the system of human rights violations in the North African country suspected this was a state crime. Also immediately, those who are defending human rights in Egypt, who are constantly taking risks and often punished with jail time, understood how important it would be to investigate thoroughly and tear at the foundations of the impunity of the country’s judicial system—to find the truth for the Italian Giulio, and then try to find it for all the Egyptian Giulios as well.
As is well known, the Egyptian authorities have chosen a strategy of misdirection, endless delays and broken promises. They have targeted lawyers and activists directly or indirectly involved in the search for the truth.
Five innocent people were killed in setting up the infamous frame job on Easter 2016, which tried to pin the murder on a gang of robbers, with evidence planted on a literal silver platter. And despite the very uncooperative behavior of the Egyptian authorities, the Italian embassy in Cairo resumed normal operations in September.
That decision, made in the heat of the holidays on Aug. 14, came after a massive media campaign that claimed that recalling the ambassador had been a mistake to start with, and his return would contribute to the search for the truth.
We do not know what the Italian side has asked for, and, most importantly, what results it has obtained as part of the renewed dialogue between Italy and Egypt in search of that truth. The Egyptian press has written a lot about Italo-Egyptian relations after the return of the Italian ambassador to Cairo, while the Italian press has written a lot less. The fact remains that by sending the ambassador back to Cairo, the Italian government has assumed a particular responsibility, since by this action it preemptively renounced any other means of exerting pressure. Then, at the start of this year, the Rome district attorney’s office proceeded to interrogate Maha Abdelrahman, Regeni’s supervisor at the University of Cambridge.
The investigation will establish whether the interrogation and the analysis of the documents and materials now in possession of the Italian investigators will yield any relevant facts.
We must be perfectly clear: Amnesty International has always maintained that the truth should be sought to the fullest extent possible.
From this standpoint, any investigative action is welcome, if it helps us understand the context in which the murder of Regeni took place.
To defend an academic institution just because it is one, without regard to the facts, is not a constructive approach. But neither is attacking an institution due to preconceived ideas, or even due to prejudice about the fact that the person at the center of this is a woman, an Arab and a Muslim.
We must be even more clear: Any civil or moral responsibility borne by other parties should never be confused or equated with the criminal responsibility of those who ordered, executed and covered up, as much as they could, Regeni’s disappearance, torture and murder.
What is certain is that these investigative developments have had the effect, among part of the public opinion and the media in our country, of reviving the so-called “Cambridge theory,” seen as an alternative avenue of investigation to that which leads to Cairo, if not the true one to pursue in the first place.
This effect is good news for those (many) who have consistently tried to downplay the responsibility of the Egyptian authorities, to legitimate after the fact the decision to send the ambassador back to Cairo, and to build the case—although it sounds like the plot of a cut-rate conspiracy thriller—for the existence of some criminal plan, masterminded in Britain, to sabotage relations between Italy and Egypt by setting up the murder of “a young researcher sent into harm’s way.”
“The truth must be sought in Cambridge, not in Cairo,” they are trumpeting. We continue to maintain that the truth is to be found in Cairo.
It is in this climate that Thursday we mark two years since that tragic Jan. 25.
In Fiumicello, Regeni’s birthplace, in Rome and in dozens of other places in Italy (the complete list, along with that of the participants, can be found on the website amnesty.it), at 7:41 p.m.—the time when Regeni was seen alive for the last time—thousands of torches will be lit.
Those lights will be the symbol of a public opinion that will not give up, that will not stop demanding we go as far as it takes to find out the names of those responsible and their ties to authority.
To turn off those lights, and leave Regeni to be remembered with nothing more than a memorial plaque here and there as a substitute for truth and justice, would be irresponsible.
It will not be that way.
In Naples, for example, they found a beautiful way to remind everyone that memory—the kind that supports the truth and doesn’t aim to be a substitute for it—is an important value to be passed on, and that the name and example of Giulio Regeni represent an unmistakable symbol for the freedom and independence of science and research.
Accordingly, in the next round of admissions for the PhD courses at the Federico II University in Naples, each PhD course at the School of Polytechnic and Basic Sciences will name one of their scholarships after him, and the idea is to be adopted soon by other departments at the Neapolitan university.
Tomorrow evening we will light up thousands of torches in the darkness, so that we will keep demanding “truth for Giulio Regeni.”
Riccardo Noury is a spokesman for Amnesty International Italy.
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