An Italian judge has suspended the trial over the murder of student Giulio Regeni in Cairo due to concerns that the defendants might not have been informed they had been charged.
The first hearing in the long-awaited trial against four Egyptian security officers on Thursday was spent deliberating over whether it was fair for the defendants to be tried in absentia.
Italian prosecutors in Rome had urged the court to continue the trial in absentia, arguing that Egyptian authorities had obstructed the investigation into the killing of the 28-year-old postgraduate student in Cairo in 2016 and had prevented Italy from contacting the suspects.
“What is at stake is Italy’s right to hold a trial regarding a very serious crime that might have taken place abroad, but that involved an Italian citizen,” prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco told the court.
But Judge Antonella Capri ruled in favour of the court-appointed defence lawyers, who had argued that the proceedings were void given that no one had been able to reach the defendants in Egypt.
Citing the need to guarantee a fair trial, Judge Capri nullified the decision to put the four on trial and ordered the documentation returned to prosecutors, who must try again to locate the suspects.
Major Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif, from Egypt’s General Intelligence, General Tariq Sabir, the former head of state security, police Colonel Usham Helmi and Colonel Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim, a former head of investigations in Cairo city, stand accused of “aggravated kidnapping”. Sharif has also been accused of “conspiracy to commit aggravated murder”.
Lawyer Tranquillino Sarno, appointed by the court to defend Athar Kamel, said the prosecution had insufficient details on the four and had even got his client’s age and position wrong, as he was “a simple policeman”.
“The defendants know nothing. Not what they are accused of. Not that we are here today. Not who is defending them,” Sarno told the court.
At a preliminary hearing in May, a judge had ruled that media coverage meant news of the investigation would have reached them. That decision was overturned on Thursday, shortly after the hearing was suspended at about 10pm local time (20:00 GMT).
Alessandra Ballerini, a lawyer representing the Regeni family, said the ruling was a “setback” that “rewards Egypt’s arrogance”.
“We will not give up,” she said. “We want justice for Giulio Regeni.”
Regeni’s parents and sister were present at the hearing in the bunker room of Rome’s Rebibbia prison, often the stage for mafia trials.
The prosecution presented the court with a 13-point list of evidence pointing to Egypt’s attempt to undermine the investigation, including how it sought to prevent the suspects from being informed that they had been charged.
Colaiocco, the prosecutor, said Egyptian investigators had dragged their feet in the case, ignoring 39 out of 64 separate requests for information, and had handed over material that was often useless, including footage from a metro station that was missing the timeframe during which Regeni had vanished.
Italy had also tried on approximately 30 occasions, through diplomatic and government channels, to obtain the addresses of the suspects, with the then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte telling Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that the lack of cooperation was weighing on bilateral relations.
“I do not think it was humanly possible to do more (to find the four suspects),” Colaiocco said.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio had welcomed the first hearing in Rome as “a result unhoped for in the weeks following the discovery of Giulio’s body”.
The government said it was joining the proceedings with a civil suit for damages, in a symbolic show of support for the Regeni family.
Regeni, a postgraduate student at Britain’s Cambridge University, disappeared in Cairo in January 2016. His body was found almost a week later and a post-mortem examination showed he had been brutally tortured before his death.
Italian and Egyptian prosecutors had set out to investigate the case together, but the two sides later fell out and came to very different conclusions.
Egyptian police initially said Regeni had died in a road accident, then said he had been kidnapped by gangsters, who were subsequently killed in a shootout. In November, Egyptian prosecutors said the person who murdered Regeni was still unknown.
Italian prosecutors claimed they had eyewitness testimony and other “significant elements of proof” implicating the security officers in the murder.