First Christmas without Giulio


di Viviana Mazza*

In the northern Italian town of Fiumicello, Paola and Claudio Regeni are spending their first Christmas without their son. Eleven months have passed since Giulio Regeni’s disappearance in Egypt on January 25th, and there has been no justice yet.

On February 3rd his body was found in a ditch on a highway 25 km from Cairo. Giulio, a 28-year-old Cambridge University’s Ph.D. student, was tortured for days. He had cuts on his nose and ears, stab wounds and bruises on his head and back, and letters seemed to have been carved into his flesh. “It was a slow death”, said the Egyptian prosecutor. “They used him as a blackboard”, said his mother Paola. “I recognised him by the tip of his nose. The rest of his face bore all the evil of the world”.

Regeni spoke Arabic and had moved to Cairo the previous fall to do research for his dissertation about local labor unions. His parents, as well as many activists, are convinced that his disappearance and torture bear the hallmarks of the security forces’s treatment of Egyptian “suspects” and supposed enemies of the State. While it is unclear whether he was arrested in a random security sweep or was specifically targeted, it seems that those who tortured him for information did not understand the political implications of doing this to a foreigner.

On the day he went missing, at 7 PM, in the quiet residential neighbourhood of Dokki, Giulio turned off his laptop after listening to Coldplay’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head”. At 7:41 he texted his Ukrainian girlfriend that he would not be able to talk on Skype that night. Then he walked in the yellow light of the street lamps to the Behooth metro station, 400 meters away. He was supposed to get off at Mohammed Naguib station near Tahrir Square, where he would meet his friend Gennaro Gervasio, an Italian professor who spent 20 years in Egypt, and then they would go to the house of an old sociology professor.  Giulio never arrived at the appointment. At 7:59 Gennaro called his cellphone: no answer. Later it was turned off, and it has still never been found.

January 25th was not just another day: it was the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. The government of Al Sisi-a general-turned-president- had warned people not to go to the streets, but particularly not to go to Tahrir. There had been preventive arrests, and foreigners were labelled as “instigators”. “Giulio hadn’t planned on going out,” his friend Amr Asaad told me. Yet for some reason he changed his mind.

Regeni’s dissertation on independent labor unions was sensitive because the unions threaten the State’s control over workers. Other researchers have been monitored or stopped from entering the country. On December 11th, while attending a union meeting, Giulio noticed that somebody was photographing him and it worried him, according to Asaad. The street vendors’ union was one of the topics of his research. Giulio met their leader, Mohammed Abdallah, and thought of helping the street vendors by applying for a £10,000 grant a British foundation.  When he understood that Abdallah wanted the money for himself, he backed off. Giulio’s friends have long suspected that this episode has something to do with his death. Recently, Egyptian authorities acknowledged that on January 7th Abdallah reported Regeni to the National Security intelligence service, although they claim that the Italian researcher was under police surveillance for just three days.  The Egyptian government has denied that it had any involvement in Regeni’s death.

The investigation has been slow and full of misdirection. Two episodes among many stand out. Initially, when the body was found on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, the head of the local police Khaled Shalaby (himself convicted of torture a decade ago, although he got a suspended sentence) said that it looked like a car accident. I visited the place and could see no sign of tire marks as from a car braking quickly, no blood or fragments of glass, and no sign of cleaning-up; yet the body was found on the other side of a one-meter-high cement guardrail. Somebody had put it there.

Then, on March 24th the police killed five Egyptian men in a minivan, claiming there was a shootout with a gang “specialising in kidnapping foreigners”; a few hours later, Giulio’s passport, university IDs and ATM card were found in their apartment. Rasha Tareq, who is related to all three of the men killed, told me that they were murdered in cold blood and framed by the police. Recently, two of the policemen involved in the shooting were indicted. How did Regeni’s documents end up in Rasha’s apartment and ultimately, who killed Giulio Regeni?  It remains to be seen whether we will ever get answers to these questions and if those responsible will ever be held accountable.

*Viviana Mazza.
Questo articolo è apparso sul quotidiano sloveno Delo. Viviana Mazza è una giornalista del Corriere della Sera: è stata inviata al Cairo per occuparsi del caso Regeni nel 2016. 




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