Cambridge PhD student murdered in Cairo ‘was tortured’

Thousands of academics from universities across the world have signed an open letter to the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi concerning the death of an Italian student from Cambridge University who disappeared in Cairo on 25 January while conducting research into how independent trade unions were organised in the post-Mubarak era.

The signatories said they were “appalled to hear that there were extensive signs of torture” on the body, which was found on the side of a fly-over on the Cairo-Alexandria motorway, on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital last week.

Giulio Regeni (28) was a member of Girton College, Cambridge University, and was conducting research for a PhD in the department of politics and international studies as a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo. He was described as a “brilliant” economics student by his friends.

He disappeared on the fifth anniversary of the Mohamed Morsi revolution – the uprising that deposed then president Hosni Mubarak and was subsequently overturned a year and a half later with the imposition of al-Sisi’s military government – a day when protests were banned and the city was reportedly full of uniformed and plain-clothes police.

Tortured and beaten to death

Regeni was killed by a violent blow that broke his neck but also suffered multiple bone fractures, and had been tortured, according to the initial findings of a post-mortem.

There were cigarette burns on and dozens of cuts to his upper body and feet, some fingernails and toenails had been torn off and the tops of his ears had been severed, ANSA, the Italian news agency, reported.

The autopsy report quoted by state prosecutor Ahmed Nagi concluded that he had “bled to death as a result of severe beating”, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported.

Italian investigators believed Regeni may have been targeted by Egyptian security services because of his research into the role of trade unionists and his articles for Italy’s Nena News agency, which covers the Middle East, according to Corriere della Sera. He also wrote under a pseudonym for the communist publication Il Manifesto.

But Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, at a press conference in Cairo on Monday, rejected any allegation that the security services or police were involved. “We have repeatedly confirmed that Mr Regeni was not imprisoned by any Egyptian authorities,” he said.

Open letter

Some 4,600 academics, in an open letter published in the Guardian on Monday and on the website of Egypt Solidarity, said those who knew of Regeni’s disappearance before the discovery of his body were desperately concerned for his safety because he vanished in the midst of a security campaign that had resulted in mass arbitrary arrests, a dramatic increase in reports of torture within police stations, and other cases of disappearances, according to local and international human rights organisations.

The letter noted that according to Amnesty International, agencies reporting to the Egyptian interior and defence ministries routinely practise the same kinds of torture that Regeni suffered against hundreds of Egyptian citizens each year.

The signatories called on Egyptian authorities to cooperate with an independent and impartial investigation into “all instances of forced disappearances, cases of torture and deaths in detention during January and February 2016”.

The letter said: “As members of the wider academic community of which Giulio Regeni was a part, we were deeply saddened to learn of his death.

“We are diminished by the loss of a young researcher whose work tackled questions that are vitally important to our understanding of contemporary Egyptian society.

“Our thoughts go out first of all to his family and friends at this acutely painful moment.”

The Cambridge response

Separately, the head of Cambridge University’s politics department Professor David Runciman, and the head of Girton College, Professor Susan Smith, have written to the Egyptian consulate in the United Kingdom calling for “a thorough and complete investigation” into Regeni’s death.

In the letter they said: “It is hard for Giulio’s family and for us to comprehend how such a talented student could meet his death in the Egyptian capital as he carried out his important academic research. We note that the Italian authorities have urged you to conduct a thorough investigation with the participation of Italian experts and we, too, call on you to conduct a thorough and complete investigation into this tragic incident.”

Cambridge University issued a statement saying it had also written to the Egyptian consulate calling on the Egyptian authorities to conduct a full investigation into Regeni’s death and continued to monitor the situation closely.

Neil Pyper, an associate head of school at Coventry University in the UK, who knew Regeni, said his murder was a “clear and direct challenge” to the culture of internationalisation at universities and to the efforts of generations of scholars who have carried out fieldwork in other countries.

Writing for The Conversation, he said the murder demands a response.

“If our scholars – especially our social scientists – are to continue producing research with an international perspective, they will need to carry out international fieldwork. By its nature, this will sometimes involve work on challenging issues in volatile and unstable countries.

“It is vital that governments raise cases such as Giulio’s, and push strongly for full investigations and for those responsible to be held to account.”

He said the Italian and Egyptian authorities had announced a joint investigation into what happened to Regeni, but the British government also had a responsibility to make representations. “That would send the message that any abuse by authorities of students and researchers from British universities will not be tolerated.”

Campaigners are calling for an international conference on the issue of enforced disappearances in Egypt.