North Africa, West Asia

Giulio Regeni, Egypt, and the deafening silence of Europe

Giulio Regeni's case is not only about academic freedom, but about the responsibility of EU states to protect their citizens: silence cannot be the response to his torture and murder.

Catherine Gegout
17 March 2016
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Giuseppe Ciccia/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images. All rights reserved.Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, disappeared in Cairo on 25 January, and was found dead with signs of torture on his body on 3 February. Giulio Regeni conducted research which contributed to our knowledge of social and global justice, the impact of civil movements on power structures before and during revolutions, the role of women in political activism, and the role of trade unions in providing living wages to citizens.

Over 4,600 academics worldwide asked the Egyptian authorities to "cooperate with an independent and impartial investigation into all instances of forced disappearances, cases of torture and deaths in detention during January and February this year, alongside investigations by criminal prosecutors into Giulio’s death, in order that those responsible for these crimes can be identified and brought to justice."

Terror in Egypt

But the Egyptian government has said it would treat Regeni’s case "as if he were an Egyptian." The government does not have much credibility for human rights organisations both in and outside Egypt. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) said it was aware of 340 cases enforced disappearance in Egypt between August and November 2015, with a daily average of three cases. Amnesty International has shown that human rights activists, lawyers, political activists and independent journalists fear for their lives. 

All EU governments, except Italy, are silent. The webpage of the EU delegation in Egypt makes no mention of Regeni.

Activist Mona Seif is under investigation. She tweeted that she advised foreign researchers not to visit Egypt, and she is said to have been accused of acting against the state and its economic interests. The government also decided in February to shut down the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. The Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, said that "it’s unconscionable for Egyptian authorities to shut down a clinic for torture victims, especially when Interior Ministry agents are committing rampant abuse of people in custody." Europe has not condemned internal abuses. But it has a duty to react to the murder of Giulio Regeni.

Where is the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom must protect academic freedom. Some academics have argued that: 

"When students from British universities go to conduct field research overseas, the UK government should have a role in helping to guarantee that the respect for academic freedom across borders is upheld. In Giulio’s case, it is the government’s responsibility to respond when this is violated."

Where is the European Union?

Giulio Regeni’s case is not only about academic freedom. It is also about the responsibility of EU states to protect their citizens. Article 3 of the Directive on Consular Protection of 20 April 2015 says:

"The values on which the Union is founded include solidarity, non-discrimination and respect for human rights; in its relations with the wider world the Union should uphold its values and contribute to the protection of its citizens."

The British, French and German governments are silent. All other EU governments, with the exception of Italy, are silent. The webpage of the EU delegation in Egypt does not have one mention of Giulio Regeni. The EU High Representative merely said on 12 February that "Italy has the whole of Europe 'at its side' in its bid to find the murderers of Giulio Regeni." She added that she had met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and told him of the "very great concern of all Europe for what happened to Giulio in Cairo, and our expectation that full light is shed (on his death)." 

Some members of the European Parliament have asked the High Representative to push strongly for obtaining a completely independent investigation on Giulio Regeni’s assassination. However, until now, neither the High Representative nor EU states have reacted to these requests.

The end of research

The case of Giulio Regeni poses a threat to research in Egypt. Other journalists and academics have been harassed by the Egyptian government for being a "threat to Egyptian national security." If silence is the response to the torture and murder of an EU citizen, then EU states and the European Union no longer abide by EU rules, and this means that no one is protected by their own state when conducting research abroad, whether in conflict areas or in ‘allied’ states.

For Giulio Regeni, Egyptians, and all researchers, and for truth, justice, accountability, the protection of human rights and education, a petition to the British Parliament can be signed here.

This piece was first published in Italian on L'Huffington Post.

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