Rome Demands Truth About Tortured Student, Recalls Ambassador to Cairo

Italians are outraged by the horrific death of Giulio Regeni, and suspect the Egyptian government was behind it. The diplomatic row is escalating.

Patrizia Cortellessa/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

ROME — There is no question that Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Italian graduate student studying in Cairo, died an unimaginably painful death. When his body was found in a ditch by a highway on Feb. 3, a full 10 days after he disappeared, it showed signs of what can only be described as horrific torture. The question is, by whose hands?

Egyptian authorities have insisted a criminal gang killed Regeni in a robbery related mugging, but autopsies there and here in Italy show a systematic brutality far beyond the work of most thieves. Both autopsies concur that the Italian died “a slow death” over several days.

The Italian government, after months trying to get Cairo to come clean, recalled its ambassador on Friday.

The case has become a huge issue for the Italian public, which has been horrified by the revelations of Regeni’s suffering. Seven of his ribs were broken, likely not all at the same time. His testicles and penis had been electrocuted. He had deep cigarette burns all over his body alongside wounds that appear to have been caused by a razor blade. His brain had hemorrhaged from a blow by a blunt instrument. Many of his fingernails and toenails had been removed with excruciating precision. The tops of his ears had been sliced off with a sharp instrument.

“We were confronted with something inhumane, something animal,” Italian Interior Minister Angelo Alfano said when he had seen results of the autopsy conducted after Regeni’s body was brought home to Italy.

That’s also when his mother, Paola Regeni, finally saw her son’s body with her own eyes after reading only news accounts of his suffering. “I am his mother. I insisted on seeing him,” she told The Daily Beast. “They told me not to, but I had to see him one last time.”

“At the morgue I only recognized Giulio by the tip of his nose,” she said. “I can’t tell you what they had done to him. I saw all the evil of the world on his body. I recognized him just by the tip of his nose. The rest of him was no longer Giulio.”

Immediately after Regeni disappeared, and even before his body was found, Italians cried foul.

Regeni went missing on Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s Day of Revolt that eventually ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The military regime of former general and now-President Abdel Fattah al Sisi had made it clear it would not tolerate any protests or demonstrations. According to Regeni’s friends, he was last seen on his way to an underground gathering to commemorate the event.

It was a very tense day in Cairo. Fearing trouble, Egyptian authorities had conducted countless raids and arrested journalists, rights activists, and Facebook administrators of pages that had called for protests. Apartments near Tahrir Square, where the revolution began, were raided and thousands of Egyptian troops were on the streets to keep the peace and suppress dissent. Was Regeni picked up in those sweeps?

Reports that he was under surveillance by Egypt’s security officials further confuse the issue. His friends say he was worried about unrest on Jan, 25, but that he had never mentioned any direct threat to him. Italian media pondered whether he was a spy in an attempt to rationalize the torture aspect of his murder, quoting unnamed Egyptian officials who said he was on the Egyptian government’s radar. Italy denied that Regeni worked for its secret service.

Egyptian officials also denied that they had anything to do with the murder, initially claiming that he had died in a car accident before clarifying the autopsy report, which showed evidence of stabbing and torture. Then they made the claim that he was the victim of a brutal robbery by a criminal gang. And on March 24 they even presented the Italian government with evidence that they had shot the thugs who were known to kill foreigners while posing as Egyptian security officers. They produced Regeni’s belongings, allegedly from the house of one of the suspects they killed, which included his Italian and Egyptian cellphones, credit cards, and a bag of hashish.

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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he didn’t buy it, and Italy would only settle for “the real truth, not a convenient one” when it came to an explanation of the young man’s death.

A month passed in which conspiracy theorists reveled in the international intrigue. The Italian press published curious confessions by unnamed Egyptian police. There were theories that his death was an Islamic-State-inspired hit meant to damage relations between Egypt and Italy, which has major investments in the country.

Regeni was in Cairo researching a thesis on workers and labor rights, which is a sensitive issue, to say the least, in Egypt where the labor movement may be the biggest threat to al Sisi’s government. Perhaps someone found out that Regeni had been writing damning articles under a pseudonym for the Italian Communist newspaper Il Manifesto about the mistreatment of Egyptian workers?

In early April, not long after Regeni’s mother threatened to post pictures she took of her son’s massacred body, Italian officials increased pressure on the Egyptians to cooperate with them in their own investigation. They asked for Regeni’s cellphone records in the days and hours before he disappeared, along with CCTV footage from the Cairo metro where he was last seen, and photos taken immediately after his body was recovered.

Egypt refused to comply.

“If there is not a change in tack, the government is ready to react, adopting measures that are both immediate and proportionate,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told the Italian parliament ahead of meetings Thursday and Friday with Egyptian officials in Rome. “We owe that to Giulio, his friends, his mother, father, his little sister and we owe it to all of us. We hope and we think Egypt can co-operate with our magistrates.”

The Egyptians apparently didn’t agree. The talks broke down Friday afternoon with the Italians apparently storming out of the meeting after yet another Egyptian refusal to cooperate.

Shortly after the talks disintegrated, Gentiloni tweeted that he had recalled Maurizio Massari, Italy’s ambassador to Egypt, to discuss what sanctions or punishments Italy could impose on its former ally. “We want one thing only,” he tweeted: “The truth about Giulio.”