A man who claims to have witnessed the arrest of Giulio Regeni has told the Guardian how he heard and saw the Cambridge PhD student inside a police station in Cairo before he was found dead by a roadside.
The witness, who is regarded as credible by investigators in Rome, said the security officials alleged to have detained the Italian behaved as if they were above the law. “Those people that took Giulio were different,” he said. “Everyone is afraid of [Egypt’s] National Security Agency.”
He also recounted exchanges between Egyptian security officers, apparently suggesting they tampered with Regeni’s mobile phone in order to hinder an investigation by Italian authorities.
The testimony is among evidence obtained by Italian prosecutors in an effort to prove that four members of the Egyptian NSA were responsible for his disappearance.
Regini’s body was found in a ditch next to a remote Cairo highway in February 2016, nine days after he disappeared while researching trade unions. His body had what have been described as the telltale marks of torture by Egyptian security forces, and was so disfigured that his mother later said she only recognised him by “the tip of his nose.”
Although no one has stood trial, Maj Gen Tareq Saber, who was a top NSA official at the time, has been named by Italian prosecutors as one of the four accused of orchestrating Regeni’s abduction.
“He [Saber] is still in service and oversees surveillance of civil society activities,” said a human rights defender, who cannot be named for their own safety. Saber was recently promoted within Egypt’s interior ministry, but reassigned away from his former politically sensitive position.
The activist said Saber’s alleged involvement and also that of Maj Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif, a locally powerful figure in the NSA, showed how Egypt’s security apparatus had intensified its crackdown on civil society since President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi came to power in 2013.
“The target is now to stop, punish and raise the cost for any such activity, and not just to monitor them or gather information,” the activist added.
Prosecutors in Rome have said they obtained testimony from three witnesses detailing Regeni’s journey from a police station in the central Cairo neighbourhood of Dokki to a large detention facility where he was tortured.
Authorities in Egypt have long maintained unknown actors or criminal gangs were responsible for Regeni’s disappearance and murder. Its public prosecutor has said any accused officials, if involved, acted independently, a claim considered unlikely by observers of its security apparatus.
Egyptian prosecutors also demanded that Italy’s claims of the security forces involvement be removed from case documents. Italy ignored Egypt’s attempt to mask the case domestically; prosecutors in Rome issued a formal request for the four men to stand trial.
Italian prosecutors have codenamed the witnesses Delta, Epsilon and Gamma. According to the testimony to the prosecutors, Gamma claimed that Sharif discussed Regeni’s abduction at a conference in Nairobi, telling others: “We thought he was an English spy, we took him, I went and after loading him in the car we had to beat him.”
Delta alleged he saw Regeni brought to Dokki. “A man was brought in around 8pm or 9pm,” he said. “He spoke in Italian and asked to speak to a lawyer and to the consulate. Only later, after I saw the photos on the internet, I understood that it was Giulio Regeni.”
Delta’s account corresponds to his description of the encounter in a later interview with the Guardian, including an exchange between Regeni and security officers after PhD student spoke in Italian. A member of the security forces replied: “You can speak Arabic, you’re Arab,” indicating they had prior knowledge of the 28-year-old before his arrest.
Security forces who detained Regini instructed officers to “leave [him] in the fridge”, said Delta in reference to a room in some Egyptian police stations used for mistreatment and sometimes torture.
The witness also described an exchange he overheard between several of the security officers.
“The four people who caught Regeni came in, [and] a police assistant came in with his mobile phone,” he said. “‘You did what I told you?’ one officer asked the assistant. ‘Yes sir, I went down, I shut off the telephone and I came up,’ the man replied.”
Delta claimed this discussion showed officers’ efforts to switch off Regeni’s mobile phone from inside a Cairo metro station, thereby apparently masking evidence of its last location when later sought by Italian investigators. The witness did not provide this evidence to prosecutors in Rome. The mobile phone has never been recovered.
Italian investigators repeatedly requested CCTV footage from the Cairo metro on the day Regeni disappeared. When Egypt eventually supplied it in 2018, it contained what the Italians described as “unexplained gaps” rendering it useless as evidence.
The account Delta provided to the Guardian included details of the layout of Dokki police station, names of security officers and conversations detainees are not normally party to.
Amnesty International also spoke to the source and found his account credible. “He was very honest about how he saw Regeni and what happened to him,” said Hussein Baoumi, a researcher on Egypt with the NGO. “It didn’t sound like he necessarily cared that much about the crimes committed against Regeni, and he didn’t necessarily see these acts as criminal or bad.”
Italian investigators say they found Delta to be a credible source and that he denied he was a former police officer.
He also described how Regeni was blindfolded and driven in a civilian car the four miles from Dokki to the Lazoghly high security compound, which is known as one of several potential destinations for forcibly disappeared detainees.
Epsilon, a veteran employee in Lazoghly, which contains both the interior ministry and a large NSA-run section for detainees, told prosecutors he saw Regeni inside the facility “naked on the upper half of his body”, showing signs of torture, and speaking Italian.
“He was at the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior and NSA, so it’s difficult for anyone to pretend they didn’t know he was there,” said Mohamed Lotfy, the founder of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, whose lawyers act as the Regeni family’s Egyptian legal counsel.
Lotfy pointed to the 13 additional persons of interest sought by Italian prosecutors who could potentially reveal what happened to Regeni in the nine days between his detention in Lazoghly and discovery of his mutilated corpse 18 miles away near another NSA facility.
“Unfortunately Egypt was not cooperative enough to supply information on them,” he said. “Would a trial reveal new evidence against some of the others?”