“Do friends kill each other’s children?” The powerful words of the mother of murdered Italian Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni to a committee of the European Parliament two weeks ago cut through an already charged time of political violence.
Her son’s case, still unresolved, has dominated headlines in Italy for months, attracted international outrage, and shone a light on a very unsavoury regime in Egypt. In Britain, academics and friends have united in horror and sorrow to commemorate Giulio, and politicians like me have urged our Government to follow Italy’s example and treat Giulio’s murder with the importance it deserves. Because it is not only the tragic and needless death of a young man in his prime that is at issue – the principles of academic freedom are also at stake.
Giulio was carrying out academic studies on trade unions in Cairo as part of his work at the University of Cambridge. His murder raises serious questions about how universities can safeguard their students, and risks limiting the ability of researchers to go about their work.
Giulio disappeared in Cairo on January 25 – his horribly-mutilated body was found ten days later, with injuries consistent with torture techniques used by the Egyptian security services. Giulio’s mother told the European parliamentary committee, that there are 266 photographs and 225 pages from the autopsy that the family may, reluctantly, decide to release. “An encyclopaedia of torture,” was how she described it. The family may have to release the horrific details because despite months of pressure and campaigning, and the withdrawal for a period of the Italian ambassador to Egypt, there is still no believable account from the Egyptian authorities of what actually happened on January 25.
The family’s trauma has been made worse by the series of totally implausible explanations offered by the Egyptian authorities, including the initial suggestion that Giulio died in a car accident, or that he had been kidnapped, or somehow involved in some sort of wild sex party. Now, at least the authorities admit that they too “presume he was tortured”, but are unable to say by whom. At the parliamentary committee a representative from the Egyptian consulate repeated the standard government line. The Regeni family’s lawyer described this as “lies served up on a silver plate”.
I attended the parliamentary committee at the invitation of Italian MEP Isabelle de Monte, who represents the area where Giulio’s parents live. After months of pressing the UK Government at Westminster and getting little in response, I wanted to meet Giulio’s parents and see how British campaigners can work with Italian colleagues to get justice for Giulio. I was impressed and moved – and have little doubt that their campaign will continue until they get the answers they need. The Egyptian authorities might do well to consider that coming clean now, albeit late, will do them less damage in the long-term than continuing to spin fictions and lies.
Giulio’s father outlined a range of demands to both Italian and UK governments. In particular, they want embassies of EU member states to offer sanctuary to people in Egypt who witnessed what happened to Giulio but are afraid to speak out. Cairo was very busy on January 25 and it is considered inconceivable that Giulio just “disappeared” without anyone seeing anything. There are people in Egypt who know what happened.
The European Parliament has already passed one resolution demanding action, and a further resolution is being prepared. I am not the only parliamentarian who has been disappointed by the response from the British Government, and we will continue to press them to work harder with others to get to the truth. Do friends kill each other’s children? No they don’t – but someone murdered Giulio, and it is the duty of friends to bring them to justice.
Daniel Zeichner is the Labour MP for Cambridge.