Cambridge University Amnesty International will be holding a vigil for Giulio Regeni on the evening of 25th JanuaryComune di Torino/Wikimedia Commons

The University released a statement this week (14/12) defending Dr Maha Abdelrahman from “malicious and defamatory accusations” over her cooperation with those investigating the kidnapping and murder of her former doctoral supervisee, Giulio Regeni, in 2016.

Regeni, a 28 year-old doctoral student and member of Girton College who had moved to Cairo in September 2015 to pursue a thesis on the Egyptian economy and research on independent trade unions, disappeared on 25th January 2016, and was found dead nine days later in a ditch at the outskirts of the capital. 

Egyptian police initially claimed that the cause of Regeni’s death was a car accident, and other contemporary media speculated that he had been caught up in a police raid against demonstrators on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. However, the state-run newspaper al-Ahram claimed at the time that his body “showed signs of torture”, with Italian prosecutors recently charging four members of Egypt’s national security agency for Regeni’s murder. 

Dr Maha Abdelrahman, Regeni’s supervisor, has faced criticism for her cooperation with prosecutors over her former supervisee’s murder case. In particular, an article from December 2016 in Italian newspaper La Reppublica attacked Abdelrahman for insincerity in her questioning with the relevant authorities. 

The article went on to allege that she encouraged Regeni to pursue a topic with which he was uncomfortable, despite her being perceived to be aware of the dangers he could face. The piece prompted several academics to write a joint letter defending Abdelrahman, which The Guardian published in 2017.

This week’s statement from the University in her defence, written by Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope, argues that despite the “very significant development” of the arrest of the four Egyptian officials by Italian authorities, “some voices in the media remain inexplicably determined to point fingers at Giulio’s supervisor, Dr Maha Abdelrahman.”

The statement continues: “Press reports have rehashed old and baseless assertions that she did not cooperate with the original investigation. These are malicious and defamatory accusations with no basis in evidence.”

“Press reports continue to misrepresent the nature of the relationship between Giulio and Dr Abdelrahman. This demonstrates a fundamental - and continued - lack of understanding about the relationship between PhD students and their supervisors, which is one of support, critique and advice rather than instruction. He [Regeni] was an experienced researcher, with experience of field work in Egypt, working on legal independent trade unions that were also being researched by many others at the time.”


Mountain View

Members of Egypt’s national security agency charged over the murder of Giulio Regeni

“This latest round of misinformation has triggered unjust and unjustified vilification of an honourable scholar. It has led to harassment and threats. The reiteration of such damaging insinuations is scurrilous and irresponsible.”

A spokesperson for Cambridge University Amnesty International (CUAI) spoke to Varsity following the release of the statement, making clear that “CUAI strongly rejects the defamatory and unfounded allegations made against Dr Maha Abdelrahman.”

Responding to the claim made in the La Repubblica article that Dr Abdelrahman encouraged Regeni to pursue dangerous research interests with which he was uncomfortable, the CUAI spokesperson stated that “Giulio had been interested in independent trade unions for many years, and had experience working in Egypt prior to approaching Dr Abdelrahman as a supervisor. Furthermore, there was no indication at the time that Giulio’s research would be life-threatening.”

The CUAI spokesperson also made reference to a recent article in The Times which reported that an Italian parliamentary committee intends to send a delegation to Cambridge to question Dr Abdelrahman on an investigative visit before the committee’s remit expires at the end of 2021.

“We advise the university to cooperate so prosecutors and the public can build a more comprehensive picture of what happened. Giulio’s abduction, torture and murder took place in Egypt, and we urge the Egyptian authorities to bring those responsible to account, and aim to raise awareness about the wider human rights abuses that the Egyptian government has perpetrated.” 

The spokesperson added: “We stand by Giulio’s family and their search for the truth”. CUAI will be holding an evening vigil in Regeni’s memory on 25th January, to which CUAI “encourage[s] members of the university to join us in remembering Giulio, and demanding that those responsible be brought to account.”

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