Judge halts trial for 4 members of Egyptian security forces

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The family of slain Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, from left, mother Paola Deffendi, Giulio's sister Irene, and father Claudio Regeni arrive with their lawyer Alessandra Ballerini at the Rebibbia prison in Rome, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, to attend the first hearing of the trial for the death of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who disappeared for several days in January 2016 before his body was found on a desert highway north of the Egyptian capital. Italian prosecutors have formally put four high-ranking members of Egypt's security forces under investigation for their alleged roles in the slaying. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ROME – A Rome judge halted the trial of four high-ranking members of Egypt’s security forces on the day it opened Thursday, saying there was no certainty they had been officially informed that they were charged in the abduction, torture and killing in Cairo of an Italian doctoral student.

Citing the need to guarantee a fair trial, Judge Antonella Capri nullified the decision to prosecute the four and ordered the documentation returned to magistrates who must try again to locate the suspects. Her decision was a blow to prosecutors who have been trying to bring Giulio Regeni’s killers to justice for five years.

Regeni’s body was found on a highway days after he disappeared in the Egyptian capital on Jan. 25, 2016. He was in Cairo to research union activities among street vendors as part of his doctoral thesis.

Regeni’s mother has said his body was so mutilated by torture that she was only able to recognize the tip of his nose when she viewed it. Human rights activists have said the marks on his body resembled those resulting from widespread torture in Egyptian Security Agency facilities.

Italian prosecutors had accused police Maj. Sherif Magdy; police Maj. Gen. Tareq Saber, who was a top official at the domestic security agency at the time of Regeni’s abduction; Col. Hesham Helmy, who was serving at a security center in charge of policing the Cairo district where the Italian was living, and Col. Acer Kamal, who headed a police department in charge of street operation and discipline.

Defense lawyers had called for the trial to be suspended, saying their clients had never been formally notified of the charges because they never provided addresses, and were therefore technically “untraceable.” Four empty chairs were left for them in the courtroom in Rome’s Rebibbia bunker tribunal Thursday.

“In Italy there can be a trial only for traceable people, the trial for an untraceable person must be suspended,” defense attorney Annalisa Ticconi told reporters outside the courthouse.

“Year by year there will be checks to see if the person can be found and the trial could restart, but in the meantime, the trial and the evidence is frozen,” she said.

Capri concurred, saying the law and the rights of the defense require her to be “certain” that the defendants know the charges and the date of the trial, and that it is not enough to “presume” that they do.

Prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco had argued that the four knew very well the trial was beginning and yet failed to show up. Prosecutors for years have denounced the obstructionism of Egypt in refusing to cooperate with the investigation, and Colaiocco accused the four of purposefully “avoiding this trial and hoping that the trial would therefore get stuck and it would not go ahead.”

Regeni’s parents and sister were in the courtroom for the hearing but made no comment.

Their lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, noted Capri’s decision “with bitterness.” Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom late Thursday, she said Egypt’s “obstructionism and arrogance” had been rewarded, but vowed that the family’s quest for justice would not stop and had only been set back a few months.

She urged continued publicity about the case, especially the names of the defendants, “so they cannot say they didn’t know.”

“We know that sooner or later we will have satisfaction,” she said.

The Italian government announced on the eve of the trial that it would join the trial's civil portion as an injured party in the case.

Egyptian authorities have alleged that the Cambridge University doctoral student fell victim to ordinary robbers.

The case strained relations between Italy and Egypt, an ally for Rome in efforts to combat terrorism. At one point, Italy withdrew its ambassador to press for Egyptian cooperation in the investigation.