The annual vigil held by Amnesty International Cambridge City Group, usually held outside Great St Mary’s Church, was moved online this year due to current national lockdown restrictionsAsiaecica / Wikimedia Commons

CN: This article contains a brief mention of torture

The Cambridge community has this week commemorated Giulio Regeni after the fifth anniversary of his murder in Egypt.

In a statement from the University, Giulio is remembered as an “outward-looking scholar, brimming with intelligence, curiosity and compassion” who showed “commitment to human rights, to his parents and wider family.”

A virtual vigil was held for Regeni over Zoom on Sunday night (24/01), organised by Amnesty International Cambridge City Group (AICCG) and Cambridge UCU, and featuring statements from Vicky Blake, National President of the University and College Union (UCU), Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge, and Debora Singer, Amnesty International’s Country for Coordinator for Egypt.

Regeni was a doctoral student at Girton College who moved to Cairo in September 2015 to conduct research for a thesis on the Egyptian economy and independent trade unions in the country.

The University’s commemorative statement was released by Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope on Monday (25/01),  which describes Regeni’s death as a “tragedy” and an “unbearable blow to his family and friends”.

“It horrified his university colleagues in Cambridge, Cairo, and across the global academic community. It was also an assault on the principle of academic freedom that underpins the work of all universities, and which Giulio embodied”, the statement continues.

The statement, which has so far received over 700 signatures from students and staff alike (as of 26/01), emphasises the ongoing need to “defend the principle of academic freedom”. It states that “the liberty to pursue independent research is a cornerstone of global scholarship” and that academics “should never be at risk of harm for following their intellectual curiosity, for collecting original data, or for seeking evidence to verify or challenge ideas.”

The statement adds that the signatories are “deeply troubled” by an “increasingly overt pattern” of “intimidation towards scholars and their scholarship”, referencing the arrest and detention in Cairo of Patrick Zaky, a postgraduate student from the University of Bologna, who was a researcher on gender and human rights.

The statement also references Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, two French academics who were arrested in Iran and have been detained for more than 6 months, having lost a bid to be released on bail in December, as well as Kameel Ahmady, an anthropologist also arrested and sentenced in Iran.

The Guardian reported at the time of his death that Regeni had left his flat near Behoos metro station to visit a friend, and subsequently disappeared on 25th January 2016. His body was found nine days later in a ditch close to a desert highway between Cairo and Alexandria, displaying signs of torture, including broken ribs. An autopsy also later revealed he had suffered a brain haemorrhage.

Egyptian police initially claimed that Regeni died in a car accident, with contemporary media speculating that he had become entangled in a police raid against demonstrations marking the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Egpytian Revolution on 25th January 2011. However, Italian prosecutors charged four members of Egypt’s national security agency in December 2020 for his murder and kidnapping.

The University “welcomed” the announcement late last year that Italian prosecutors had charged four Egyptian officials with Giulio’s murder, but laments that they are still “far from knowing what happened to Giulio five years ago - and why.”

However, last month, Egypt’s public prosecutor Hamada al-Sawy cleared the four security officials - Tariq Saber, Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim, Capt Uhsam Helmi and Maj Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif - charged by Italian authorities. An article from newspaper Egypt Today claimed that the charges were “the outcome of wrong deductions that do not align with reason or international criminal standards.”

The University statement concludes: “on the anniversary of his disappearance, we continue to stand alongside Giulio’s family and friends in demanding truth and justice. We also stand, more firmly than ever, with a global academic community united in its call for academic freedom without fear of persecution.”

Blake spoke as the vigil’s first external speaker, saying that the UCU “demand[s] justice for Giulio and for all of Egypt’s disappeared”, and that the “pursuit of truth and justice for all is central to the mission of the trade union movement.”

Referencing a campaign in 2018 by UCU members at the Universities of Liverpool and Cambridge which saw the University of Liverpool scrap its plans to build a new branch in Egypt, for fear of “reputational damage”, Blake welcomed collaboration between the UCU and Egyptian academic colleagues, but stressed that “we will not collude in any institutionalised effort to hide human rights abuses.”

Zeichner then followed on from Blake. He drew attention to an Adjournment Debate held by Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, in the House of Commons on 8th December 2020, which focussed on the arrest of human rights advocates in Egypt.

Zeichner said in the vigil that he “pressed ministers [...] to press hard to get the truth for Giulio” in an intervention during the Debate, and was pleased with the Minister’s response. He added, however, that he was disheartened to see, in a debate held on an Egpytian trade treaty with the UK weeks later, that the “Minister’s response was much less impressive and was profoundly disappointing” when asked about making trade deals with Egypt when it is a country known for human rights abuses.

Zeichner argued that the UK should “use [its] influence to get to the truth about cases like [Regeni’s murder].”


Mountain View

Egyptian officials cleared of involvement in Regeni murder

Singer then spoke, claiming that over the past year, 50 people have died in Egyptian prisons and around 100,000 imprisoned -“most of them simply for speaking up for human rights.”

Singer also announced that Amnesty International would be releasing a report which highlights that “there’s huge overcrowding” in Egypt’s prisons, claiming that there are double the amount of prisoners to prison capacity.

She concluded her segment by suggesting that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has concerns over the image of Egypt abroad, saying that “this gives us hope that actions like this vigil now and continued campaigning can make a difference, so that people in Egypt can speak their minds without fear.”

A minute’s silence was then observed by all participants at the Zoom vigil.

This comes as Euronews reported this week (25/01) that the Regeni family had submitted a complaint to the Rome Public Prosecutor’s Office over the sale of arms between Italy and Egypt. After Italy and Egypt agreed an arms deal estimated at £960m last June, the complaint accuses the Italian government of violating Italian law n.185/1990, which “forbids the transfer of weapons to countries involved in a conflict or when it is known that human rights and humanitarian law violations are perpetuated.”