Italy withdraws ambassador to Egypt for talks about Regeni’s death case

 Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni was conducting research into labour unions in Egypt. Photograph: Twitter
Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni was conducting research into labour unions in Egypt. Photograph: Twitter

Italy has recalled its ambassador to Cairo in protest at the lack of progress in the investigation by Egyptian authorities into the torture and murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student whose high-profile case has raised diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

The Italian foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, ordered Maurizio Massari to return to Italy, following two days of talks in Rome between Egyptian investigators and their Italian counterparts.

“Urgent decisions are needed on the most proper actions,” said a statement issued by the ministry on Friday. Massari will return to Rome for consultation and to discuss the way forward “to ascertain the truth about the barbaric murder of Giulio Regeni”, the statement said.

The news was also published on Twitter by Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, accompanied by the hashtag “truth for Giulio Regeni” (#veritapergiulioregeni).

Regeni’s body was found on a Cairo roadside on 3 February. A PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, Regeni, 28, was working on labour unions when he disappeared on the 25 January anniversary of the Egyptian uprising.

Egyptian officials initially said he may have been killed in a traffic accident but autopsies carried out in Cairo and Rome showed Regeni had suffered extensive and prolonged torture before his death.

Authorities in Cairo later suggested that Regeni had been killed by a criminal gang, which had hoped to force him to empty his bank account. But outside observers said the murder bears the hallmarks of a state-sponsored killing.

Amid growing anger over the speed and direction of the Egyptian investigation, a team led by Cairo’s deputy prosecutor, Mostafa Soliman, travelled to Rome to present a 2,000-page dossier of their findings with Italian officials.

The recall was widely seen in Italy as a sign that the meetings had failed to satisfy Italian authorities.

The case has provoked indignation in Italy, where Regeni’s mother addressed parliament, and leading politicians have called for the truth about his death to be told.

Gentiloni set the tone for the meetings on Tuesday with a statement to the Italian senate and parliament, in which he warned Cairo against presenting “distorted or convenient truths”.

The minister said he was ready to take “proportional” action if Egypt did not provide the requested evidence, comments Egypt’s foreign ministry described as complicating the situation.

In a statement, the spokesman for the Egyptian foreign affairs ministry said that they were yet to receive an official notification of the ambassador’s withdrawal. He added that they await the “return of the Egyptian investigation team in order to attain their assessment of the results of the meetings” in Rome.

Ministry sources said the Egyptians are keen to calm the situation, and expressed personal fears that the decision could impact trade with one of Egypt’s closest allies, especially with Italian gas giant Eni.

Documents presented in Rome include the phone records of two of Regeni’s Italian friends who were in Cairo in January and photographs of the Italian’s body when it was found.

But according to a statement by the Rome prosecutor’s office, CCTV footage from the metro station Regeni is believed to have passed through on the day he went missing was not provided – even though it was specifically requested by Gentiloni.

The Italian investigators said they had been reassured by the Egyptian delegation that collaboration would continue “until the truth is reached” into the circumstances surrounding Regeni’s death.

Ahead of the Rome meetings there was speculation that Egypt would name a suspect in the case, with a senior policeman identified in Italian media as the most likely person to be held responsible.

But there has also been speculation that the policeman would be used as a scapegoat, with scepticism in Italy that all of those involved in Regeni’s torture and death would be held accountable.

The international dimension of the Regeni case has prompted academics worldwide to demand an investigation into his death and the increasing number of forced disappearances in Egypt.

HA Hellyer, an associate fellow at the British defence and security thinktank the Royal United Services Institute, said that the decision should “really cause the Egyptians to have pause”.

“An ally as close as the Italians has just decided we’re pulling our ambassador as we’re not satisfied with the level of cooperation,” he added. “This is a big precedent, not only for the Italians but the whole of the European Union.”

Italy had previously been one of Egypt’s strongest allies, with Rome one of the most enthusiastic backers of Egypt’s pledge to stamp out an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula as well as its ongoing involvement in Libya.

At Egypt’s flagship investment conference in Sharm el Sheikh last year, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi told the crowd: “Your war is our war, and your stability is our stability.”

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