The Government’s Position Vis-à-vis Egypt on the Killing of the Italian National Giulio Regeni

At the beginning of 2016, the Italian national Giulio Regeni was murdered in Cairo in unclear circumstances. This soon became a major issue in the foreign policy of Italy and a cause of tension in its relations with Egypt. The event is here illustrated through the accounts given by the members of the Italian Government themselves, on the occasion of official reports to the Parliament. At the same time, some important political and legal aspects are also briefly addressed.

On 9 February 2016, few days after the disappearance of Giulio Regeni, Mr Benedetto Della Vedova, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was invited by 3rd Permanent Commission (Foreign Affairs, Emigration) of the Chamber of Deputies to summarise the facts of the case. His account of the events is as follows:

Giulio Regeni was a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University and, since September, he had been in Cairo as visiting researcher at the American University there. His research was economic in character and mainly concerned the role of independent trade unions in Egypt. He had studied Arabic, knew the country well, having already been there in the past, and had a great interest in it. On 25 January – the day of the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution – some friends were waiting for him to have dinner together at a restaurant in Cairo, but he never reached the place of the meeting. […] Warned by [one of these friends, a professor at the American University], the Italian Embassy took immediate action by informing the local authorities and, at the same time, activating all possible channels of communication in order to find Giulio. In the hours immediately following the disappearance, the Italian Ambassador Maurizio Massari drew the attention of the Egyptian Minister of the Interior to the case, through the Egyptian Minister for Military Production, stressing the sensitivity of the case and the attention paid by Italy to the search [for Regeni]. The Egyptian authorities assured that all necessary efforts would be made in order to find our compatriot. The Egyptian police and military intelligence excluded that Giulio Regeni had been detained or arrested. […] Acting upon Minister Gentiloni’s instructions, Ambassador Massari made contact with Fayza Aboul Naga, President al-Sisi’s Advisor on National Security, and with Ambassador Hossam Zaki, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. […] In this context, on 31 January, Minister Gentiloni himself had a direct phone conversation with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry, to whom he expressed the deep concern of the Italian Government for the fate of our compatriot and urged that every effort be made in order to find him and obtain information on his conditions. […] The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took further action on 2 February, when Ambassador Massari met the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, Magdi Adel Ghaffar, to whom he manifested the growing concern of the Italian Government for the situation, pointing to the growing interest of the Italian public opinion and mass media in the case, and renewed his appeal for a swift and positive solution of the matter. The Egyptian Minister, on his part, assured that investigations were ongoing and that all information gathered by the Egyptian intelligence service, which has a solid experience in localizing peoples, would be shared with the Italian Embassy. […] On 3 February, the Minister for Industrial Activities, Federica Guidi, landed in Cairo at the head of a long-scheduled entrepreneurial mission and raised the issue of Regeni’s disappearance during a closed-door meeting with President al-Sisi, asking him that all efforts be made in order to find our compatriot. […] On the same day, around 8 p.m., during the official ceremony organised by the Italian Embassy on the occasion of the visit by Minister Guidi and her delegation, Ambassador Zaki, Assistant Minister for European Affairs at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unofficially informed Ambassador Massari of the discovery of a body matching Giulio Regeni’s description. […] Minister Guidi, in agreement with Minister Gentiloni, decided to cancel her visit and immediately go back to Italy. Minister Gentiloni, who was in London at that time, […] asked Egypt that light be shed on what happened, by means of investigations carried out with the participation of Italian experts as well. The night between 3 and 4 February, absent any confirmation by the Egyptian authorities on the identification of the corpse that was discovered as the body of Giulio Regeni, Ambassador Massari went to the morgue to see the body found in a ditch in Giza, a Cairo district far from the place where on 25 January Giulio was supposed to go for dinner. The official confirmation was given by the Egyptian authorities on 4 February, also because of pressure from the Italian Embassy. According to the preliminary results of the autopsy conducted in Cairo by the Egyptian coroner, Giulio Regeni’s body shows ecchymoses, burns, and cuts on the chest and shoulders. Therefore, it appears as a violent death at the hands of persons unknown, preceded by torture, whose circumstances are now under investigation. On 4 February, in the morning, […] Minister Gentiloni had an ad-hoc meeting in London with his Egyptian counterpart Shoukry and expressed his awe for the fate of our compatriot, and asked the full cooperation of Egypt, also through the inclusion of Italian experts in the investigations. At the same time, upon Minister Gentiloni’s instructions, the Secretary General of the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs urgently summoned to the Farnesina the Egyptian Ambassador in Rome, expressing Italy’s dismay at the tragic fate of our young compatriot and stressing that unrestrained, efficient and transparent collaboration was expected. […] In the meantime, in Cairo, Ambassador Massari handed personally to the Head of Cabinet of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs a note verbale requesting that the discovery of Giulio’s body be made official, that a thorough inquiry be carried out with the participation of Italian experts and finally, that the body of our compatriot be returned for repatriation to Italy. On the same day, 4 February, President al-Sisi made a phone call to Prime Minister Renzi and told him that he had ordered the Ministry of the Interior and the Attorney General’s Office that every effort be made in order to dispel all ambiguity and determine the circumstances of Giulio Regeni’s death. President Renzi then obtained President al-Sisi assurances of full cooperation by the Egyptian authorities and his consent to sending a team of Italian experts to participate in the ongoing investigations in Cairo. Meanwhile, in the afternoon of 4 February, Ambassador Massari had a second talk with the Head of Cabinet of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during which Ambassador Din assured that Regeni’s body could be repatriated shortly, and this actually occurred on 6 February. […] On the judicial level, a few days ago the Italian Embassy transmitted the notice of the disappearance of Regeni to the Public Prosecutor’s Office [Procura della Repubblica] of Rome, and later gave notice of his death. As a consequence, the Public Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation. The team of Italian investigators sent by Rome reached Cairo on the evening of 5 February. […] The day after, the team had a long meeting with high representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, and another long meeting with technical experts of the police.

On 5 April 2016, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, gave two speeches before the Italian Parliament – first at the Senate of the Republic (603rd Meeting, XVII Legislature) and later at the Chamber of Deputies (602nd Meeting, XVII Legislature) – in order to update the MPs on the developments of the Regeni case. Recalling the words of Prime Minister Renzi, who had said: “we will stop only when we find out the truth – the real truth, not the convenient one”, he summed up the main actions taken by his Government and the Italian judicial organs to that end:

After a first phase of information-sharing on the ongoing investigation, the cooperation between our investigative team and the Egyptian authorities revealed to be, as time passed by, generic and insufficient. Thus, in late February I informed my counterpart, the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, of a note verbale, delivered the day after, in which our Embassy asked directly and in detail to obtain five categories of investigative files that could somehow increase and complete the work that our investigators were also trying to carry out. On 2 March a 91-page dossier was delivered to our Embassy and, through it, sent to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rome, which in the meantime had started its own enquiry.

According to Minister Gentiloni, however, the dossier was incomplete, while misleading information had at the same time been disseminated in the form of quasi-official reconstructions describing Giulio Regeni as working for the intelligence of some Western country. This notwithstanding, the confirmation by President al-Sisi of his personal commitment contributed to a temporary improvement of the relations between the two States. Mr Gentiloni continued as follows:

Once again, however, ten days later, on the late evening of 24 March, our investigative team was invited by the Egyptian authorities responsible for the investigation for a briefing on the killing of a group of five criminals, who, by pretending to be policemen, used to kidnap foreigners. According to this briefing, […] Giulio Regeni’s passport and university documents had been found inside a bag in the house of the leader of this group of criminals. This, objectively, appeared as a further and perhaps even more serious attempt to corroborate a truth of convenience. […] Both the Italian Government and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, through their own contacts, immediately made clear that we would not accept this to be the conclusion of this investigation.

It is worth noting that the scant and unfruitful cooperation between Italy and Egypt led the former, on 8 April 2016, and thus only few days after Minister Gentiloni’s speech, to recall its ambassador in Cairo. One month later, on 11 May 2016, a new ambassador, Mr Giampaolo Cantini, was nominated but never sent to Egypt, so that the normal diplomatic relations between the two Countries have not, as of May 2017, resumed yet.

Minister Gentiloni then underlined that the firm stance taken by Italy contributed to bringing the Egyptian authorities to retract the abovementioned version of the facts, and described as a positive turn their reassurances that the enquiry would go on. He then urged the Parliament to express its position on Italy’s resolute attitude towards Egypt:

At this point, honourable colleagues, I believe it is not only legitimate, but necessary that the Parliament wonders whether the firm reactions of the Government, the Parliament, the judiciary, of Giulio Regeni’s family, and of the whole country will manage to restore a channel of full cooperation between Italy and Egypt. This is the same channel of cooperation that President al-Sisi himself assured he wanted to keep open.

On the role of the legislature, already at the beginning of his speech, Minister Gentiloni had stated that “it is useful that the Parliament makes itself heard in a loud and unanimous voice”. In that, he was obviously referring to exerting political pressure on Egypt. However, it is worth recalling the concrete steps taken by the Italian Parliament as related to the Regeni case.

In the first place, both at the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic, proposals have been put forward to establish parliamentary commissions of enquiry on Giulio Regeni’s death. However, as of May 2017, such proposals (Doc. XXII no. 68 for the Chamber of Deputies and Doc. XXII no. 33 for the Senate, both dated 24 May 2016) are still stalled.

In the second place, on 29 June 2016 the Senate of the Republic (650th Meeting, XVII Legislature) voted by a majority of 159 to 55 for amending Draft Law 2389 on certain measures for the consolidation of peace and security at the international level, which provides, among other things, the delivery free of charge of military materials to some foreign Countries, namely Iraq, Albania, Uganda and Egypt. With Amendment 4.100 by the Joint Commissions (which came to be known as the “Regeni Amendment”), the transfer to Egypt of replacement parts for F-16 aircrafts was cancelled, in retaliation for the Country’s lack of real cooperation with Italy. In the same vein but in much more general terms, on this occasion also Motion G4.1002 was passed, which “commits the Government not to authorise transfers of weapons and weapon systems free of charge to the benefit of States responsible for committing grave violations of international human rights conventions, as established by the competent organs of the United Nations, the European Union or the Council of Europe, or States training and employing children in combat”.

Thirdly and finally, on 26 May 2016, in the course of a debate on amendments to the Italian Criminal Code in order to include a new crime of perverting the course of justice [inquinamento processuale e depistaggio], Motion G1.100 was proposed at the Senate of the Republic (635th Meeting, XVII Legislature) that was explicitly connected with the Regeni case. Such motion read:

The Senate […] having regard to the fact that:

Article 7(5) of the Criminal Code provides for the punishment in accordance with Italian law of a national or an alien who commits abroad any crime for which the applicability of Italian criminal law is established by special law provisions or by international conventions; [also having regard to] the opaque way in which the Egyptian judiciary – also in the opinion of our national authorities – is conducting the investigations on the murder of the Italian national Giulio Regeni, is painfully topical. Regeni disappeared on 25 January in Cairo under circumstances that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately described as “mysterious”. Since the finding of his body, on 3 February, many hypotheses have been put forward, though it seems certain that he was tortured and that some units, even parallel to the security organs of Egypt, may be involved in the subsequent tampering of evidence;

therefore, it is only right to extend the possibility for the Italian judicial authorities to prosecute those responsible of crimes against Italian nationals, especially in case of breaches of fundamental human rights, as protected by the Italian Constitution and international human rights treaties. These crimes do not only harm a political interest of the Italian State, which has the right as well as the duty to intervene to protect the rights of its nationals and provide them with the assistance needed, but also violate the fundamental rights of the victims themselves, as safeguarded by our Constitution and by international norms incorporated in our legal order, such as the right to life, the right to personal freedom, the right of free association, and the right to freedom of expression,

commits the Government to consider the possibility of giving effect to the content of the item on the agenda under examination, extending the scope of application of the Italian criminal jurisdiction by amending Article 7(5) of the Criminal Code, so as to include the crime of perverting the course of justice […] where committed abroad against Italian or EU citizens.

The abovementioned motion, however, was not approved in full. The proponent of the bill to which it was attached, Mr Felice Casson, endorsed by the representative of the Government, the Undersecretary of State for Justice, Ms Federica Chiavaroli, successfully recommended the deletion of its first and third paragraphs. The proposed extension of extraterritorial jurisdiction was rejected without giving a reason, whereas the whole reference to the Regeni case was erased because – in the words of Mr Casson – “it referred to specific facts that concern the situation with Egypt, which is a country we do not want to start a conflict with”.

The reasons behind Italy’s willingness not to undermine its relationship with Egypt relate to the role of the latter in both the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and the containment of migratory flows from Africa, as explicitly declared on 13 July 2016 by Minister Gentiloni at the Chamber of Deputies (653rd Meeting, XVII Legislature). However, according to him:

stressing such a role and the cooperation between Italy and Egypt, which the Government does not intend to question, has not undermined our determination in demanding collaboration and the truth on a fact that tragically involved an Italian national […].

A similar tone has been used in other statements of the Italian Government concerning the Regeni case. Italy’s stance on this issue is often expressed by resorting to a similar wording, that is, by affirming that the Government will not accept convenient truths and will insist on obtaining Egypt’s full cooperation with the aim of finding those responsible for Giulio Regeni’s assassination. Examples can be found in virtually all the Government’s statements here reported and translated, and in other ones as well (for instance, Mr Della Vedova’s speech before the 3rd Permanent Commission (Foreign affairs, Emigration) of the Chamber of Deputies, on 30 June 2016).

The Government also made clear what it means when it demands full cooperation from Egypt. In his speech of 5 April 2016, Minister Gentiloni explained:

What do we mean by this? We mean, for example, acquiring all missing documents; we mean giving no credit to distorted or convenient truths; we mean, for example, establishing who were those responsible for spying on Giulio Regeni prior to his disappearance; we mean accepting the idea that the Italian investigators in Egypt play a more active role in the enquiry, of course under the judicial supervision of the Egyptian investigators, as provided by law.

The same concept has been put forth on other occasions, sometimes in even stronger terms. On 24 February 2016, replying to a parliamentary question on the case before the Chamber of Deputies (576th Meeting, XVII Legislature), Minister Gentiloni adopted a more imperative tone, at the same time detailing the content of what appears to be a duty of judicial cooperation:

we will not accept convenient truths, nor unlikely hypotheses like those that were evoked even this morning in Cairo. The cooperation with the team of our investigators can and must be more effective, meaning that the Italian investigators cannot be just informed: they must have access to all audio and video recordings, all medical documentation, and to the proceedings of the trial […].

It is difficult to say whether the Italian Government, by resorting to this language, assumes the existence of a right to take part in the Egyptian enquiry and obtain the related data. At any rate, it is a fact that the Government threatened the adoption of retaliatory measures in the event that Egypt does not give effect to such a tight cooperation. In the words of Minister Gentiloni, as uttered on 5 April 2016 before the Chamber of Deputies:

Something is to be said now, even with a bit of solemnity if you want, that is, it is to be said in the Parliament, so that there is no doubt that, if this improvement [in Egypt’s cooperation] does not occur, the Government is ready to adopt those immediate and proportionate measures that it will deem necessary, promptly informing the Parliament.

As seen above, Italy has already taken some of these measures. For example, in April 2016 the Government decided to call back the Italian ambassador in Cairo, while the Parliament cancelled the transfer free of charge of military materials to Egypt. Both acts were said to be Italy’s reaction to Egypt’s lack of real cooperation. To these, another one must be added. On 3 November 2016, Mr Della Vedova, before the 3rd Permanent Commission (Foreign affairs, Emigration) of the Chamber of Deputies, affirmed that:

Notwithstanding the multiple converging interests on crucial issues such as the fight against terrorism and the overcoming of the main crises in the common neighbourhood, we have always been straightforward with Egypt on such critical points, in our bilateral relations as well as in the wider EU and UN context. As is well known, we acted consistently with our position on the Regeni case by not voting for Egypt during the recent elections in New York for the renewal of the Human Rights Council’s membership.

The original Italian version of the speeches translated or quoted above can be found here below in chronological order:

Benedetto Della Vedova, Terza Commissione permanente, 9 February 2016

Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, Camera dei Deputati, 24 February 2016

Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, Camera dei Deputati, 5 April 2016

Benedetto Della Vedova, Terza Commissione permanente, 30 June 2016

Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, Camera dei Deputati, 13 July 2016

Benedetto Della Vedova, Terza Commissione permanente, 3 November 2016

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